By Jack Schley
This man carried many names during his life time, including Thomas Greene Wiggins and Thomas Wiggins Bethune, however, he remains internationally remembered today as “Blind Tom.” During his life and even a hundred years after his death, his name was followed by titles proclaiming him as the most famous person Columbus has ever produced, and the most gifted musician to ever perform on a public stage.
Thomas, or Tom, was born into the most unassuming circumstances that could never be imagined for a man whom would become an internationally celebrated “musical genius.” At a young age, it became clear that the world would expect very little from him. Thomas was born blind, never to see the world in color or form. In short time, it became further apparent that the blind infant was further incapacitated with a mental condition that has been identified today, over a century and a half later, as Autism. As if blind and “idiotic,” as the medical examiners of his time declared, were not limiting enough, Tom was born into slavery in rural Georgia in 1849.
Due to the increased interest that Thomas’ life generated after his death, his story is told in many varying accounts. The most commonly accepted story of this man is that he was the twenty-first child of Mingo and Charity Wiggins, farm laborers owned as human property by Mr. Wiley Jones, a bankrupted cotton planter from Harris County. Shortly after Thomas’ birth, his parents were sold at auction and Thomas was “thrown in” to the sale to encourage bidders. The winning bid that day in 1850 was made by General James Neill Bethune of Columbus, Georgia.
General Bethune was a lawyer and newspaper publisher in Columbus who received his military title in the Indian Wars of the 1830s. He lived on a small, rural homestead outside of Columbus called “Solitude” along Lindsay Creek with his wife, Mrs. Frances Gunby Bethune, and their seven children: John, Susan, Cherry Elizabeth, Joseph, James, Rachel, and Mary Barbara. Thomas and his parents were taken to Solitude where Charity washed laundry for the Bethune family and Mingo worked as a laborer. Once Thomas began to walk he formed the habit of wandering off. Charity began placing a large wooden crate under a tree next to the Bethune home and would put Tom inside to prevent him from getting hurt while she did her day’s work.
Being close to the house, Thomas could hear the Bethune children practice and play the piano the family kept in their front parlor. One night, when Thomas was three years old, the Bethune family sat at their dining room table for their evening meal. As they ate, the sound of the piano from down the hall interrupted the family’s mealtime conversation. With all children present at the table, the eldest daughter Mary got up to see who could be making the noise. Seated at the piano and tapping away at the keys was the blind, slave child Tom. After that night, Mary Bethune began teaching Tom how to play the piano.
It was quickly recognized that Tom had an abnormally strong memory. He could repeat full conversations that he heard between the family earlier in the day. After he learned the keys on a piano, he could hear a song played by someone else and play it back perfectly. He also was possessed of a keen sense of hearing. Sounds captivated him. He would wonder into the woods at night following the sounds of birds or the wind through the trees. Tom could be drawn back to the house by the sound of one of the Bethune sons simply playing his flute in the yard. All the sounds that he heard he would remember. There was a powerful thunderstorm one night at the Bethune farm and the next day Tom recreated the sounds from the storm on the piano. This later became one of his own compositions titled, “The Rain Storm.” When he would play pieces unfamiliar to the Bethune children they would ask where he had learned it, Tom would reply, “The birds and the wind taught it to me.” He was said to be very energetic and playful all of his life, but when the music started Tom would become focused, claim, and fully absorbed in the sound.
Tom had been born mentally and physically lacking but that absence was made up for by an incredible increase in his sense for hearing and his capacity for memory. General Bethune recognized this and made sure that Tom had access to the family piano. The General once tried to hire a musician from Columbus to give Tom lessons. Upon hearing Tom play, the musician refused, reasoning that Tom knew more about music, in his young age, than anyone could ever teach him. The man believed that reducing music to rules and procedure would interfere with Tom’s innate ability. The musician recommended that Tom should simply hear great music played by professional musicians.
With that advice, General Bethune would take Tom into town to hear traveling musicians perform or would hire the performers to play with Tom in private. At the age of eight, Tom performed publically for the first time at a hotel in downtown Columbus. To the white antebellum audience members, seeing a blind, dumb, slave child play classical music on a piano was extraordinary. Following that first successful performance, General Bethune took Tom on a tour of the country where Tom performed in packed theaters in all the major cities. In 1860, at the age of ten, Tom became the first black artist to perform at the White House for President James Buchanan. He later performed for royalty in Europe.
In concert, audience members would call out the names of any musical piece and Tom would play it perfectly on cue. Theater patrons would even approach the stage, play a composition on Tom’s piano of their own creation, and Tom would play it back perfectly. One evening, an audience member sat at Tom’s piano on stage and began to play. His chosen composition was intricate and involved him moving his hands apart down the length of the piano. When he reached the ends, the player threw his head down and struck a key with his nose. As Tom resumed his position to play back what he had just heard, the audience members held their breath. Tom played up to the note that was struck by the man’s nose two of three times, obviously confused, but on the final play with Tom’s hands stretched to the ends of the piano Tom dropped his head and hit the correct key with his nose. A witness reported that he thought the roof of the building would collapse due to the roar of the audience’s response to Tom having called the trick. In another performance, Tom played one song with his left hand, another with his right, and sang a third all at the same time and all in different pitches. He was known to jump up from his bench after his own performances and lead the audience in their applause, applauding himself. At the height of Tom’s career, his repertoire of performance music was said to consist of seven thousand compositions, including a few of his own.
The Bethune family left Columbus and moved to Virginia following the War Between the States. It was there at the new family farm that Tom spent many of the summers off from his concert tour. Tom did return to Columbus and once performed at the Springer Opera House. General Bethune was appointed as Tom’s legal guardian after Emancipation and his son John Bethune later became Tom’s manager. John was caught up in a messy divorce with a woman named Eliza who was already married when she was wed to John. Following the divorce, Eliza sued General Bethune for custody of Tom. She won the suit and Tom lived out the last fifteen years of his life with her and her third husband, Mr. Albert Lerche, at their home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was never allowed to see the Bethunes or his mother, whom remained in Columbus, ever again.
Three weeks before his death in 1908, Tom suffered from a stroke that partially paralyzed his hands. On the night that he died, Eliza Lerche could hear Tom trying to play the piano but becoming frustrated by his paralysis. Through his sobs, Eliza heard him say “I’m done, all gone, Missus” followed by a thunderous thud of his body collapsing on the floor. Without music, his joy in life and will to live was “all gone.”
One of the many mysteries that remains about Thomas today is where he is currently buried. Following his funeral, he was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in New York. In the mid 1900s, a great-grandchild of General Bethune planned to have Tom exhumed and reinterned in Columbus. There are those who believe this plan was carried out and that Blind Tom is currently buried in Midland, Georgia, just a few miles from where he was born. Evergreen Cemetery, however, maintains that their burial records show Tom was buried there in 1908 and no evidence exists that he was ever moved. Even this claim has its doubters, as witnesses at Tom’s funeral claimed that the body in the casket was a tall, gray haired man. Tom was only five foot eight inches tall and had dark hair all of his life.
General and Mrs. Bethune were buried in Linwood Cemetery in Columbus. The land of their old farm, where Tom grew up, is currently occupied by the Hardaway High School and Columbus State University campuses, the family home having burned over a century ago. Currently, descendants of the Bethune family and Mingo and Charity Wiggins continue to call Columbus their home. And around the world, Thomas Wiggins’ music from a life and career that began in Columbus, Georgia, is still studied and performed. A few of his compositions, performed by notable musicians, can be found online through YouTube.
-Special thanks to Mrs. Patti Andrews for contributing her research for the writing of this article.