|Title||Program for "Blind Tom" Wiggins performance, St. Louis, Missouri|
|Dimensions||H-9.5 W-6.25 inches|
|Provenance||Judge George Greene|
|Credit line||Museum purchase made possible by Daniel P. and Kathelen V. Amos, Julie and Mizell Alexander, Friends of the Museum, and Gift by Exchange of Jim and Marge Krum|
When Charity Wiggins gave birth to her son Thomas on May 25, 1849, no one on the Wiley Jones plantation in Harris County, Georgia, could have predicted the fame this baby would soon attract. Jones' neighbor, General James Bethune, soon bought Wiggins, her husband Mingo Greene, and the infant Tom. At Bethune's farm in eastern Muscogee County, Tom began going outside at all hours of the night, following and imitating any animal noises he heard. Though his strange behavior was labeled as that of an "idiot" at the time, most experts today believe that Tom was autistic, explaining his extraordinary memory and talent for mimicry. As he grew older, Tom was alternately described as a "gentle giant" and a "grotesque beast." Phrenologists, who practiced the popular 19th-century "science" of studying head size and shape to make judgments about mental faculties, routinely referred to Tom in their work.
In 1853, the Bethune family purchased a piano that fascinated four-year-old Tom. One evening, the family heard Tom playing a simple refrain one of the daughters had been practicing. General Bethune soon moved him into the main house and Tom learned quickly by taking lessons from local musicians and playing for hours each day. At the age of five, he gave his first performance and composed a version of his first piece, "Rain Storm," describing it as "what the wind, thunder, and rain said to me."
In 1858, the first of Tom's many managers developed the stage name "Blind Tom" as the boy toured throughout the South. An invitation in 1860 to play for President James Buchanan made Tom the first African American to give a musical performance at the White House. When the Civil War began, Tom performed benefit concerts at Columbus' Temperance Hall and in other southern cities to raise money for Confederate soldiers and their families, under the direction of the Bethunes. It was during this time that he composed his most famous work, "The Battle of Manassas." In 1864, General Bethune formed an indenture agreement, giving him control of Tom's performances and earnings, with Tom's parents, who were still enslaved and illiterate. Bethune later had Tom judged to be mentally incompetent without his parents' knowledge and guardianship was awarded to his son John.
After the war, Tom's fame and talent grew exponentially as he toured America and Europe, playing sonatas by Beethoven, virtuosic works by Liszt, and his own original compositions in packed theaters and concert halls. Time between tours was spent at the Bethunes' new home in Warrenton, Virginia, or apartments in New York City where Tom took lessons. Mark Twain became so fascinated with Blind Tom's story that he once attended concerts three nights in a row, later writing a vivid account. By 1879, Tom's concerts and sales of his sheet music were netting close to $20,000 annually, equivalent to more than $280,000 today, but Tom and his family received none of it.
When John Bethune died suddenly in 1884, his estranged wife Eliza reached out to Tom's mother Charity Wiggins, urging her to take legal action to release Tom from the Bethunes' guardianship. Dramatic newspaper accounts claimed that Tom was the "Last American Slave." After three years in court, Eliza became Tom's guardian, assuring Wiggins that she could live with Eliza and Tom in New York and receive part of Tom's earnings. However, Wiggins returned to Columbus within nine months, claiming that the remarried Eliza Bethune Lerche was trying to turn her son against her. Charity never saw her son again.
The last few years of Tom's life saw his star dim as America's musical tastes changed, though he kept performing periodically in concert halls and vaudeville venues. When not touring, the Lerches shuffled Tom between a dingy East Side tenement and a tranquil country estate in the Navesink Highlands of coastal New Jersey, a home purchased with his earnings. Tom's career came to a sudden end in 1904 when he was "stricken with paralysis." Neighbors in Lerche's Hoboken, New Jersey, tenement reported that Tom continued playing for hours at a time until stopping abruptly eight weeks before his death from a stroke at the age of 59 on June 13, 1908. Today, Thomas Wiggins is memorialized with two tombstones, one in Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery and one in Midland, Georgia, near the land where he first began to play.
Blind Tom Wiggins