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Thomas Greene Wiggins was born May 25, 1849, to Mungo and Charity Wiggins, slaves on a Georgia plantation. He was blind and autistic but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Georgia. Thomas Greene Wiggins was born May 25, 1849, to Mungo and Charity Wiggins, slaves on a Georgia plantation. He was blind and autistic but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Georgia.
Young Tom was fascinated by music and other sounds and could pick out tunes on the piano by the age of four. He made his concert debut at eight, performing in Atlanta. In 1858 Tom was hired out as a slave-musician, at a price of $15,000. In 1859, at the age of 10, he became the first African American performer to play at the White House when he gave a concert before President James Buchanan. His piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860. During the Civil War, he was back with his owner, raising funds for Confederate relief. By 1863 he played his own composition, “Battle of Manassas.” By 1865, 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now “indentured” to James Bethune, could play difficult works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg. He also played pieces after one hearing and memorized poems and text in foreign languages. Advertising claimed Tom was untaught, but in fact, he was tutored by a Professor of Music who traveled with him. James Neil Bethune took Tom Wiggins to Europe where he collected testimonials from music critics Ignaz Moscheles and Charles Halle, which were printed in a booklet “The Marvelous Musical Prodigy Blind Tom.” With these and other endorsements, Blind Tom Wiggins became an internationally recognized performer. By 1868 Tom and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year, averaging $50,000 annually in concert revenue.
James Bethune eventually lost custody of Tom to his late son’s ex-wife, Eliza Bethune. Charity Wiggins, Tom’s mother, was a party to the suit, but she did not win control of her son or his income. One of the most famous American entertainers of the nineteenth century, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins was an African American musician and composer. Blind from birth and born into slavery, Wiggins became well known for his piano virtuosity. Though undiagnosed at the time, it is likely that he was autistic as well. Thomas Greene Wiggins was born near Columbus on May 25, 1849, to Charity and Domingo Wiggins, slaves who were owned by Wiley Jones. After discovering that the infant was blind, Jones refused to feed or clothe him. Wiggins’s mother interceded to save his life, and several months later Wiggins, his two older siblings, and his parents were sold at auction to General James Bethune, a Columbus lawyer. The Bethune family had seven musically gifted children who played piano or sang, and Wiggins stood by, rapt, as the children practiced. Soon, he began reproducing the music he heard on the keyboard, and Bethune realized that his young slave was a musical prodigy. Piano lessons were provided for him, and Wiggins’s ability quickly surpassed that of his teachers.
Bethune recognized his talent as a potential source of income, and Wiggins was hired out at the age of nine or ten to a traveling showman named Perry Oliver. Wiggins’s demanding tour schedule often included four performances a day, and as he grew into a large man, his graceful precision stunned audiences. From his earliest years “Blind Tom,” as he became known, could mimic many kinds of sounds, from bird calls to trains, with unbridled and uninhibited enthusiasm. In time he would incorporate such effects into his musical works, imitating wind and rain, for example, and claiming that the sounds of nature had taught him the melodies. Blind Tom became so renowned that U.S. president James Buchanan invited him to Washington, D.C., and he became the first African American musician to perform at the White House. On one tour, he crossed paths with the writer Mark Twain, who was himself on a speaking tour. Twain was so enthralled with Wiggins’s remarkable abilities that he attended three performances in a row in 1869.
Blind Tom’s performances invariably contained a challenge, in which an audience member was brought onstage to play the most difficult piece of music he or she could. Blind Tom would stand by, wringing his hands and making improbable one-footed leaps in the air, anticipating the challenge, and naming each note as it was played. He then retook the piano and played the piece back exactly as he had heard it, flaws and all. He could also play different pieces of music with each hand while singing a third, all in different keys.
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