American musician Tom Wiggins (1849–1908) was among the best-known African-American pianists of the 19th century as well as the first black musician to perform before a U.S. president at the White House. Wiggins, who was blind and known as Blind Tom, played from memory and is now presumed to have been an autistic savant.
Thomas Greene Wiggins was born near Columbus, Georgia, on May 25, 1849, the son of Mingo and Charity Wiggins. The Wiggins were then slaves, the property of one Wiley Jones, and Charity Wiggins asked Jones's 17-year-old daughter Valeria to name the newborn boy, the youngest of her three children. This may have been a canny strategy to prevent Jones from killing the baby, who was blind, because disabled slave children were considered a burden. The strategy worked. Tom Wiggins lived, and within a year Jones sold the entire family to General James Neil Bethune, a local lawyer who had gained his rank while serving in a war against the Creek tribe in 1832.
Even as a toddler, Wiggins's showed signs that he was somehow different. His gestures were unusual and he would sometimes be combative, sometimes suffering from fits during the night. He also showed a talent for recalling seemingly unimportant phrases and details. While modern historians have recognized such behaviors as signs that Wiggins was autistic, that condition would not be identified until physician Leo Kanner did so in 1943. Wiggins's interest in music and sound was precocious and uncanny. “He listened for hours to the little corn mill in the kitchen or to the rain in the gutter spouts,” wrote John Ryan Seawright in the Oxford Book of Great American Music Writing. Wiggins often listened intently as Bethune's children sang and played piano. When he was two Wiggins could sing a pitch-perfect imitation of the words and melody to a song Bethune's son had just sung.
In 1859, when Wiggins was around nine or ten years old, Bethune hired him out to Perry Oliver, a traveling showman, for three years at $15,000. Oliver billed the boy as Blind Tom and took him on tour, requiring him to perform up to four times a day. At his concerts, Wiggins mimicked the sounds of trains, birds, wind, and rain. He could perform three songs at a time in different keys, one with each hand while singing the third. To show off Wiggins's uncanny memory, a member of the audience was invited on stage and asked to play the most difficult piece of piano music that he or she knew. Wiggins, standing nearby, would name each note the audience member played, then return to the piano and play the piece from memory. Onstage, he reacted intensely to his own songs, with the “ecstasy of delight, breaking out at the end of each successful fugue into shouts of laughter, kicking his heels and clapping his hands,” according to Rebecca Harding Davis, commenting in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862 (as quoted by Daphne A. Brooks in The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative).
On June 9, 1860, the year Wiggins turned 11, he became the first black musician to perform at the White House, invited there by U.S. President James Buchanan. While in Washington, D.C., he also performed for the first Japanese delegation to the United States. On June 18, Oliver also arranged for Wiggins to give a concert for an audience of 1,000 in nearby Baltimore, Maryland.
While Wiggins was in Baltimore, musician H.J. Weisel transcribed two of the boy's original pieces. According to Weisel's own account, published in 1863, Wiggins resisted cooperating. “I don't want my pieces published, and I don't want anyone else to play them,” he said, according to Weisel (as quoted by Brooks in The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative). According to Weisel, he and Oliver eventually convinced the boy to play, offering a mix of threats and candy. The troubling incident led to the first of many publications of Wiggins' songs as sheet music.
Wiggins was on tour in New York in January of 1861 when Georgia seceded from the Union, a prelude to the U.S. Civil War. Oliver cut the tour short and returned home to the South. During a performance in St. Louis, Missouri, in May of 1861, Wiggins not only played piano, he recited a speech he had recently heard delivered by U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, imitating Douglas' voice as well as his accent.
Because Wiggins was developmentally disabled, he was especially vulnerable to continued exploitation after slavery was ended in the American South. On May 30, 1865, weeks after the war ended, Bethune filed a contract between him and Wiggins's parents, binding the young man to his service for five years. The contract called for Mingo and Charity Wiggins to receive $500 a year and a house; Wiggins would get $240 a year and 10 percent of Bethune's profits from Wiggins's performances.
Wiggins's tour of the United States lasted a year and was followed by a tour of the United Kingdom and France in 1866 and 1867. The spread of the railroads made it easier for Bethune and company to transport their pianist performer great distances, and his fame soon spread around the country. Wiggins continued touring for the rest of the decade, making hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Bethunes. An 1868 playbill for his performance at Mechanics’ Hall in New York City billed him as “the most marvellous musical genius living” and vouched that “he plays the most difficult Operatic Pieces, not only brilliantly and beautifully, but with all the taste, expression and feeling of the most Distinguished Artist.” The playbill listed 82 pieces Wiggins might play, including “The Battle of Manassas,” waltzes, polkas, marches, and classical compositions by Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin.
Wiggins sometimes reacted intensely to train travel, imitating the train's sounds while en route. In January of 1869, the writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), traveling in the same train car as the musician, witnessed one such moment. “What a wild state he was in!,” Clemens wrote in his column for the San Francisco Alta, as quoted by Deirdre O'Connell in The Ballad of Blind Tom. “Clattering, hissing, whistling, blowing off gauge cocks, ringing his bell, thundering over bridges with a roar.” At the end of the journey, Clemens attended Wiggins's concert. Impressed, he continued to attend Wiggins's performances for years to come, at one point sitting in the audience three nights in a row.
In July of 1870, Wiggins was 21 years old, and the contract between Bethune and his parents was nearing its end. Bethune's son, John Bethune, successfully petitioned a Virginia judge to declare Wiggins incompetent and appoint him guardian. Soon after, he turned over control of Wiggins to Thomas Warhurst, a theater manager. Members of the Bethune family acted as guardians of Wiggins for the rest of his life, controlling his movements and profiting from his performances.
Through the 1870s and into the early 1880s, Wiggins was one of the most famous musicians in the United States, commanding high ticket prices for his performances. He performed in New Orleans nearly every year during Mardi Gras. He also played at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and the 1881 presidential inauguration of James Garfield.
In 1875, John Bethune moved with Wiggins to a boarding house in New York City's Greenwich Village. When he died in a train accident in 1884, guardianship of Wiggins again became contested, resulting in several court cases. In 1887, John Bethune's estranged wife, Eliza, won the legal battle and persuaded Charity Wiggins to appoint her as guardian, thus allowing her to control the musician and his income. Eliza Bethune—renamed Eliza Lerche after she remarried—bought a home in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Wiggins's income. She kept him in seclusion for many years in her New York apartment while battling lawsuits over her finances, likely out of fear that any income he earned for her would be taken in court.
Charity Wiggins came to regret signing away custody of her son. “They stole him from me,” she told a newspaper reporter (according to Seawright in the Oxford Book of Great American Music Writing), commenting on the situation shortly before her death in 1902, at age 102. “When I was in New York I signed away my rights. They won't let Thomas come to see me, and I am not allowed to see him.”
American novelist Willa Cather attended one of Wiggins's concerts in 1894. “Probably there has never been seen on the stage a stranger figure or one more uncanny,” Cather wrote in the Nebraska State Journal, as quoted by Brooks in The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative. “He is a human phonograph, a sort of animated memory, with sound producing powers.” Wiggins's practice of introducing himself in the third person, probably reciting someone else's past introduction, disturbed Cather, as did the African Americans description of his own “idiocy” while addressing the audience. “There was an insanity, a grotesque horribleness about it that was interestingly unpleasant,” the novelist added.
Finally released from seclusion once Lerche's legal battles were over, Wiggins played at New York's Circle Theater in 1904, his first concert in about a decade. He also went on a few final tours between 1904 and 1906 and spent his last years in Lerche's house in New Jersey.
Wiggins was 59 years old when he died in Hoboken on June 13, 1908, of a stroke. Although his burial site is in dispute, he was likely buried in the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Some sources maintain that his body was later exhumed and reinterred in Columbus, Georgia. His music can be heard on John Davis Plays Blind Tom: The Eighth Wonder, a 1999 album by pianist John Davis, who recorded 14 of Wiggins's original compositions.
Ernest, John, editor, The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative, Oxford University Press, 2014.
O'Connell, Deirdre, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Overlook Duckworth, 2009.
Smirnoff, Marc, editor, The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, University of Arkansas Press, 2008.
“Blind Tom's concerts at Mechanics’ Hall, September 23, 1868” (playbill), Metropolitan Job Printing and Engraving Establishment (New York, NY), 1868. ❑