Cabinet card photograph from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The portrait is of Thomas Wiggins, a young African-American man dressed in a dark suit. He is seated with his eyes closed, one hand resting on a table next to him.
Content warning: This article contains historical accounts and language used to describe Thomas Wiggins that reflect racist and ableist attitudes.
Thomas Greene Wiggins (1849-1908), a pianist and composer 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 Thomas 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. Wiggins’ 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.
Thomas Wiggins was born on May 25, 1849, to Charity and Migo Wiggins. He was born into slavery on a plantation in Columbus, Georgia. Wiggin’s blindness put his life in danger. As author Deirdre O’Connell notes, “[f]ew disabled children born into slavery survived into adulthood”(16). Unable to perform the abusive physical labor expected of him, and referred to as a “useless burden” by plantation owner Wiley Edward Jones, Charity Wiggins had reason to fear for her son’s life (Armond, 4). Wiggin’s mother first asked the plantation owner’s daughter to name the baby as a protective measure (O’Connell, 15-16). When Wiggins’ parents heard the family was to be sold to pay off debts, they covertly convinced General James Bethune to buy them as a family. Thomas Bethune was known locally for his “generous impulses and tender sympathies” (O’Connell, 26). The strategy worked. Through his parents’ initiative, five members of the family managed to stay together and provide a chance of survival for baby Thomas who “was ‘thrown-in’ as a bargain” (Blind Tom’s Old Mother).
James Bethune was a lawyer and newspaperman who was married to a music teacher and had four daughters who were highly-trained musicians. Wiggin’s fondness of sounds and his ability to replicate them would eventually draw him to the family’s house and their piano, which he stubbornly gained access to as a toddler. The story goes that his ability to replicate songs he heard played at the Bethune’s house led to his musical instruction from his daughter Mary Bethune and later teachers hired for that specific purpose. Geneva Handy Southall writes of this time that, “his love of music and music-making led him to write original songs and imitate sounds of nature and other musical instruments on the piano” resulting in him becoming a “prized possession” by his sixth birthday that was exhibited to neighbors (1). Wiggins’ gift as a musician was not lost on James Bethune.
With the success of informal performances, Wiggins began publicly performing in Georgia. He then became a “hired-out slave musician” under a three-year contract to a plantation owner who exhibited him around the country (Handy Southall, 2). Wiggins was a popular attraction who had music published at this time, though like the tours, it was Bethune who profited. The first year of this tour earned Bethune the equivalent of $3 million today (Middleton). Soon Bethune was back in charge of Wiggin’s touring. He was often performing as many as four times a day (Simpson). Thomas 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 (“Blind Piano Prodigy”). He was eleven years old at the time.
With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Wiggins only toured in the South. He was also used to raise funds for the confederacy (Handy Southall, 2). In these performances Wiggins would play “Dixie” with one hand and “Yankee Doodle” with the other while singing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” (Handy Southall, 3). In 1863 James Bethune, anticipating the end of slavery, “persuaded” Wiggins’ parents to sign a five-year indentured servant agreement giving him legal guardianship of Thomas Wiggins (Handy Southall, 3). The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January first of that year. By the end of July of 1865, the court sided against an African American man, giving Bethune custody of his former slave, something Handy Southall notes as an example of how ex-slave owners re-enslaved black Americans after emancipation legally (4). The agreement stated that Wiggin’s parents would receive $500 a year for his performances while Bethune earned nearly $50,000 a year for himself (Handy Southall, 3).
The agreement was the beginning of legal battles over guardianship for Wiggins, fought by the many people who would exploit him and by his mother Charity, who would continue to fight over his guardianship, their visitation rights, and over the inequitable sum of his earnings. She would do so until the end of his life. In an interview conducted around 1900, Charity expressed her feelings that her son was stolen from her and resented their separation (Handy Southall, 119).
In 1866 Thomas Wiggins traveled to Europe to perform at age 16. In 1875 the management and custody of Thomas Wiggins were passed down to Bethunes’ son, John, and then, after a legal battle, Bethunes’ ex-wife Eliza Bethune Lerche. Lerche had persuaded Wiggin’s mother to officially sign over all of his rights to her, but the result as with the Bethunes was the same.
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. In Wiggins’ time, he was described and sometimes promoted as “idiotic” and a “freak”. “The Marvelous Musical Prodigy, Blind Tom” published in 1867 includes descriptions of these symptoms and subsequent prejudices:
“Considering that in early life he learned nothing, and later but little from sight, that he is possessed by an overmastering passion, which so pervades his whole nature as to leave little room for interest in anything else, and the gratification of which has been indulged to the largest extent, it is not surprising that, to the outside world, he should exhibit but few manifestations of intellect as applicable to any of the ordinary affairs of life, or that those who see him only under its influence should conclude that he is idiotic” (8).
“There is no reason to believe or even conjecture anything like imposition in the performance of Blind Tom, whom we would class not so much with musicians, as with many persons who, otherwise idiotic, achieve astounding feats in the way of arithmetical calculation” (25-26).
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, Thomas Wiggins rarely saw his family and had no autonomy.
Wiggens began performing less in the late 1800s and stopped in the mid-1890s. Around 1901, after many false reports of his death, Wiggins began a comeback on vaudeville, orchestrated by a Vaudeville manager who used the false reports as a draw for skeptical audiences (Handy Southall, 128-129). Thomas Wiggins died on June 14, 1908, at the home of Eliza Bethune Lerche in a house Rob Simpson points out she purchased with money earned by Wiggins (“Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins”). He was fifty-eight years old. The final cause was reported to have been a stroke.
Wiggins’ musical legacy and life story have gained renewed attention recently. Consequently, there are several books about him including a children’s picture book, and several articles and photographs available online. There are also several performances of Wiggin’s compositions and tellings of his history available on YouTube. There was a play written about him, several films produced, and even a song written by Elton John (The Ballad of Blind Tom). Some of these resources are listed below in the “Sources” and in “More resources” sections of this article.
Hale, Jen. “Thomas Wiggins” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, February 2, 2023.