Sunday, February 21, 2021 Thomas Wiggins (1849-1908), an autistic savant, "played the Woodward Opera House in 1869"

Thomas Wiggins
(Robert A. Larson)

It seemed too fantastic to believe. Yet it was said that Blind Tom had performed in the White House at the request of President James Buchanan. And he had certainly performed all over the United States and even in Europe.

Now it was time for Mount Vernon to hear Blind Tom. The date was Dec. 4, 1869.

The curtain raised and a southern gentleman walked to the lip of the stage. A few seconds later, a Black man about the age of 20 wandered out onto stage behind the master of ceremonies. As the host began explaining to the audience that 'Thomas Bethune' was an idiot, a blind, almost savage creature, one that had been officially determined non compos mentis by a medical doctor.

Tom wandered the stage, muttering and grimacing to himself, sometimes making spastic arm gestures. Whenever he approached the proscenium arch, or the backdrop, or the square grand piano sitting center stage, the young man seemed to sense its presence, reaching out with his hand to touch it before running into it.

The gentleman pontificated that despite Tom's idiocy, God had graced him with an extraordinary gift for music, which “Tom will be delighted to share with this fine audience.”

“Tom will be delighted to share with this fine audience,” Tom echoed, in a voice matching the phrasing and cadence of the host.

Finally sitting down at the piano, Tom began playing. And the crowd realized, the hard-to-believe stories were true.

At the height of his career, it was estimated that Thomas Wiggins — his real hame — had a repertory of more than 7,000 pieces of music. Many were popular tunes of the day, many were classics by the great composers such as Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart.

He also had a substantial number of original pieces. And then there were the pieces that various audience members had played to him during his tours to challenge his memory. He remembered those, too, sometimes adding them to his repertory, sometimes creating variations on them to amuse himself.

Who was this remarkable prodigy?

Thomas Wiggins was born in 1849 on a plantation in Georgia to Mingo and Charity Wiggins. He was a slave, as were his parents. The slave owner realized within a few months that the baby was not developing like a “normal” child, and he said that the baby was a “worthless runt” and would be better off dead.

Charity Wiggins kept a close eye on the baby, though, making sure that nothing was done to him. The slave owner decided that he needed to get rid of the problem child and its defiant mother, and put the whole family up for auction.

Charity approached the master of the neighboring plantation, General James Bethune, and begged him to purchase the family, so that they wouldn't get sold off, one by one. Bethune expressed reluctance to get involved, but on the day of the auction, he showed up and purchased the Wiggins family.

Bethune realized quickly that the young boy, Tom, was a problem. The boy was blind and communicated mainly in grunts. The only emotion he seemed to have was a sheer delight in sound.

Birds, wind, storms, trains, horses. Everything caught Tom's attention. He loved to bang on pots and pans and push around objects to make noise. And when General Bethune's daughter had her weekly piano lesson, little Tom was transfixed. He kept trying to approach the piano, but was, of course, scolded and pulled back.

One day General Bethune and his wife had just sat down at the tablefor supper. They were chatting, not paying much attention to the sound of their eldest daughter, Mary, practicing the piano in the next room. When a servant brought food to the table, Mrs. Bethune called for Mary to come to the table.

Mary appeared in the doorway on the opposite side of the room from where the sound of the piano was still coming.

“Who is playing the piano?” she said.

The family rushed into the next room and found 3-year old Thomas sounding out what he had heard during Mary's piano lesson, and doing a remarkably good job of it. Mary immediately took it upon herself to start teaching Tom how to play. Within weeks the boy had progressed so much, Bethune began showing him off to friends and neighbors.

Over the next few years, Bethune began having Tom play public events. More and more people heard him and walked away stunned, shaking their heads.

At the age of eight, Tom was licensed to Perry Oliver, a showman who would take Tom on his first tours. Tom showed neither great like for nor dislike of touring. He was mainly interested in how far it was between pianos when they were traveling. And when he wasn't playing music or humming to himself, his only other interest was eating.

Tom's fame spread like wildfire. By the end of the 1850s, Blind Tom, as Oliver billed him, was bringing in over $100,000 per year. That figure is not adjusted for inflation. Adjusted for inflation, the figure would be in the millions.

The truth is that before he was even a teenager, Thomas Wiggins – known professionally as “Blind Tom Bethune” – was the highest paid piano player in the world.

United States President James Buchanan heard about the remarkable prodigy and had him perform at the White House in 1860. At one point, he was challenged to listen to pair of young women playing a duet, the challenge being for the piece to be repeated with Tom playing one of the parts. The piece was played.

As he was listening, Tom wandered around the stage, pulling on his hair, at one point standing on one foot, at another moment softly knocking his forehead against the wall.

Then he sat down with one of the young women and began to play the duet perfectly. Suddenly the young woman gave a wink to the audience and jumped ahead to a different part of the song.

“You cheat me! You cheat me!” Tom bellowed out, and pushed her off the bench and played the rest of the song himself, approximating all four hands. It's amazing to think that a young Black male could physically push a white woman off a piano bench in front of a crowd and not get in serious trouble for it, or even lynched, but such was the spell of the mystery of Tom's talent.

Just before the tour where Tom appeared in Mount Vernon, he toured Europe and received endorsements from major composers and musicians such as Ignaz Moscheles and Charles Hallé (after whom England's Hallé Orchestra is named). Under Perry Oliver's tutelage, his range of performance stunts increased, too.

One trick was teaching Tom how to perfectly play a classical work with his back to the piano. Another astonishing trick was when Tom would play one tune with his left hand, a different tune with his right hand, while singing a third tune with his deep, handsome voice.

Testing Tom's memory and mimicry, Oliver took the boy once to hear a speech by orator Stephen Douglas. For the rest of his life, Tom could recite the entire speech in Douglas' voice, replete with intejections made by hecklers in the audience. He could memorize conversations, even speeches in foreign languages, perfectly.

He showed little sign of understanding the words, but he relished the sound of the words. Tom created his first piece of music when he was five, imitating the patter of rain on the piano. He ended up coming up with about 100 original works, which were written down by others. One imitates the sound of a sewing machine, another imitates waves.


The Rainstorm” starts with a highly derivative melody, then abruptly veers off into a vividly naturalistic depiction of a storm, then reprises the trite melody, utterly without irony.


Tom's biggest tour-de-force was “The Battle of Manassas.” One of General Bethune's sons fought at the First Battle of Manassas (better known in the North as the First Battle of Bull Run). It had been the first major battle of the war, and the Union forces expected to end the whole war with one decisive victory.

Instead, they got their proverbial behinds handed to them by the rebels. One of those rebels was a son of the Bethune family.

When the soldier came home on leave, he described the battle in detail to the family, and Tom made his own musical depiction of the scene. He made use of fife and drum tunes, patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” and even “Le Marseillaise.”

He would pound his fist on the low keys of the piano to simulate cannon fire, and use short, staccato notes up high to portray rifle fire. He even gave the Rebel Yell and a shrill whistle to depict a steam train celebrating the Southern victory.

With the constitutional amendment freeing slaves in 1865 after the war ended, General Bethune knew that he'd be losing a remarkable source of income if Tom were to leave him. He talked Tom's parents into signing a five-year indentured servitude agreement with him, which the uneducated parents assumed was their only option.

In 1865, an African-American concert promoter sued Bethune in an attempt to wrench control of the musician away, but the courts sided with Bethune. In 1870, Bethune had Tom declared mentally incompetent and had his son John assigned as Tom's legal guardian.

John moved Tom to New York City, where they lived at a boarding house when not touring. John Bethune married the boarding house proprietor, Eliza Stutzman, who had a talent for keeping the sometimes noisy and anxious Tom calm.

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