Perkins School for the Blind, collector
The Thomas Wiggins (“Blind Tom”) newspaper clippings and pamphlets collection contain mostly newspaper clippings, some magazine clippings, and several pamphlets related to Wiggins’ musical performances and life, that span 1861 until his death in 1908.
1.5 linear feet
English, French, German, Dutch
Elizabeth Constanti, 2014. Finding aid updated in 2023 by Jen Hale as part of reparative work. Revisions include title change including subject’s name, more detailed container list, updated date span (now includes 1860), updated historical note and processing note, and a content warning.
This collection was processed with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Preservation and Access, Washington, D.C., 2012-2015.
As part of reparative work to this finding aid performed in 2023, the choice to refer to Thomas as “Thomas Wiggins” was chosen because it is the name on his birth certificate and the family name that belonged to his parents.
Thomas Greene Wiggins (1849-1908), a pianist and composer more commonly known by his stage name, “Blind Tom,” was a well-known African American musical prodigy who was blind. He went by both Thomas Wiggins and Thomas Bethune. These names reflected the white men who held legal control over Wiggins during his lifetime, first in slavery and then after emancipation. Wiggins has since been referred to as the last slave because of his lifelong guardianship. His gift of memorization and playing and composing music would take him all over the country and Europe as a performer. His race and disabilities, however, were used as a means of control and exploitation that left him, legally, at the mercy of enslavers, managers, and court-appointed wards his entire life.
Born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1849, his blindness put his life in danger. When his parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, heard the family was to be sold, they covertly convinced General James Bethune to buy them as a family to keep them together. Wiggins’ ability to replicate the music he heard in the Bethune house led to his musical education. His gift as a musician made General Bethune take notice and soon Wiggins was composing music and performing all over the country as “Blind Tom.”
Wiggins became so popular that he performed at the White House for President James Buchanan in 1860, and is believed to have been the first African American to perform there. In 1863 James Bethune, anticipating the end of slavery, got his parents to sign a five-year indentured servant agreement giving him legal guardianship of Wiggins. Bethune agreed to pay his parents $500 a year for his performances while earning nearly $50,000 a year himself. In 1866 Wiggins traveled to Europe to perform at age 16. Eventually, the management and custody of Wiggins were passed down to Bethunes’ son, John, and then, after a legal battle, his ex-wife Eliza Bethune Lerche.
Wiggins is recognized by many today as an autistic savant. Descriptions of him both on and off stage show signs and symptoms often associated with autism. During his lifetime, these symptoms along with his blindness were used as a means of control and exploitation that left him, legally, at the mercy of managers, and court-appointed wards long after the official end of slavery. As a consequence, Wiggins rarely saw his family, had no autonomy, and was at the mercy of his wards. His mother would continue to fight over his guardianship, their visitation rights, and the inequitable sum of his earnings throughout his life. Thomas Wiggins died on June 14, 1908, at the home of Eliza Bethune Lerche. He was fifty-eight years old.
Sources of information:
- Armand, Glenda. Song in a Rainstorm: The Story of Musical Prodigy Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, Chicago, Illinois, Albert Whitman & Company, 2021.
- “Blind Piano Prodigy Thomas Greene Bethune”. The White House Historical Association. Available on whitehousehistory.org. Accessed January 24, 2023.
- Hale, Jen. “Thomas Wiggins” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, February 2, 2023.
- Handy Southall, Geneva. Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer Continually Enslaved, Lanham, Maryland, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999.
- O’Connell, Deirdre. The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist, New York, New York, Overlook Duckworth, 2009.
It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission to publish from the owner of the copyright (the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates, or literary executors). The user agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Perkins School for the Blind, its officers, employees, and agents from and against all claims made by any person asserting that he or she is an owner of copyright.
AG136 Thomas Wiggins (“Blind Tom”) newspaper clippings and pamphlets. Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.
The collection includes mostly newspaper clippings, as well as some magazine articles and pamphlets written about Thomas Wiggins, commonly known as “Blind Tom”. The bulk of the clippings are from Dwight’s Journal of Music. Many items highlight his piano performances as he toured across the country. There is an article about the death of his mother, Charity Wiggins at 105 in 1903, his return to performing after being reported dead, several times since 1879. Two articles are from publications in German and French.
Perkins School for the Blind Archives acknowledges that our historical collections may contain harmful imagery and language. Because harmful content documents attitudes and prejudices of the time in which they were made, we make this content available. It is our intention to mitigate potential harm with content warnings and carefully considered language on content created by the Archives.
This collection contains a significant amount of writing and language used to describe Thomas Wiggins that reflect racist and ableist attitudes. This includes descriptions and illustrations of his appearance and descriptions of his life and talent.
1 half-size manuscript case and 1 oversized box arranged in chronological order by date. Box 2 contains oversized clippings.
B1:F1 = Box 1: Folder 1
- B1:F1: Clippings notes on Perkins letterhead, circa 1877-1955
- B1:F2: Five Magazine and journal clippings, 1860
- B1:F3: Two Dwights Journal of Music clippings, 1861
- B2: F1: “Blind Tom”, American Phrenological Journal, June 1861
- B1:F4: “Blind Black Tom”, All the Year Round journal, October 1862
- B1:F5: Four copies of “Blind Tom”, The Atlantic Monthly magazine, November 1862
- B1:F6: Two journal and magazine clippings, 1862
- B2:F2: Seven clippings from Dwights Journal of Music, 1862-1863
- B2:F3: “Der blind schwarze Tom”, Illustrirtes Familien Journal, circa 1863. [In German]
- B1:F7: Five newspaper clippings, 1865.
- B1:F8: “De Blinde Zwaite Tom”, pamphlet, 1865. [In Dutch.]
- B2:F4: Two newspaper clippings, New York Herald, 1865.
- B1:F9: Three journal and magazine clippings, 1866
- B1:F10: “The marvelous musical prodigy, Blind Tom,” pamphlet, 1867.
- B1:F10: Two copies of “Notice sur la vie de Blind Tom” pamphlet, 1867. [In French].
- B1:F11: Journal and newspaper clippings, 1874, 1879
- B1:F13: Three newspaper clippings, 1882-1888
- B2:F5: “Blind Tom’s wonderful gift”, Foxboro Reporter, September 24, 1887
- B2:F6: “Blind Tom as he is today”, Ladies‘ Home Journal magazine, September 1898
- B1:F14: Six newspaper clippings, circa 1900, 1902
- B2:F7: Three newspaper clippings, circa 1902-1908
- B1:F15: Three newspaper clippings, 1903
- B1:F16: Three newspaper clippings, 1904-1905
- B1:F17: Eight newspaper clippings, 1907-1908. [Topics include his death].
- B2:F8: “Blind Tom”, Human Life magazine, September 1908
- AG129 Blind in Art Collection. Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.
- “Musicians who are Blind.” Digital collection of artwork on Flickr.
Perkins School for the Blind, collector
- People who are blind
- Blind Tom, 1849-1908
- Bethune, Thomas Greene, 1849-1908
- Wiggins, Thomas Greene, 1849-1908
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