Thomas Bethune

Thomas Greene Bethune a.k.a Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins 

Thomas Wiggins (1849-1908) was a blind autistic slave born into an enslaved family. Tom's father Domingo Wiggins, a field slave, and his mother Charity Greene were purchased at auction by James Bethune of Columbus, Georgia when Tom was an infant. The Bethune family had seven children who played piano or sang, and their mother had been trained professionally, so when it became clear that Tom at a young age possessed an uncanny ability to imitate any musical composition-or any sound- she took over the musical education of Tom as well. His ability quickly surpassed that of his teachers. Bethune recognized his talent as a potential source of income, and Tom was hired out at the age of nine or ten to a traveling showman named Perry Oliver, who gave Bethune $15,000 to exhibit Tom in southern and other pro-slavery states. By 1860 Tom had started to compose music, and had been invited by President Buchanan to perform at the White House, becoming the first African American musician to perform at the White House- although not as a free man. 

When the Civil War broke out, Tom’s engagements were limited to the South where he was used to raise money for the Confederacy. His most famous song, "The Battle of Manassas", a song evoking the sounds of battle interspersed with train sounds and whistles, which Wiggins made himself, is the story of the Confederate Army's 1861 victory at the Battle of Bull Run. As a result, many black newspapers refused to celebrate him, pointing out that he served to reinforce negative stereotypes about African-American individuals and that he was only a source of profit for slaveholders. 

Determined to retain control over him even in the case of a Confederate defeat, in 1864 Bethune made Tom’s parents sign a 5 year indenture agreement giving Bethune legal guardianship of Tom. In 1865 there was a challenge to the indenture agreement, and a trial in Georgia, full of racial and political overtones, ended in a judge allowing Bethune to keep Tom in a “neo-chattel” relationship. 

When Tom turned 21 and at the end of his indentured contract, Bethune requested that the courts declare Tom legally insane and appoint himself as legal guardian. The courts complied. Tom continued to perform. Throughout his life he would tour Great Britain, Scotland, Europe, Canada, the Rocky Mountain states, the far West, and South America. His repertoire included up to 7,000 pieces: standard classical piano repertoire with approximately 100 of his own compositions. He also added the coronet, French horn, and flute to his list of mastered instruments. Shortly after the Civil War ended, General Bethune relocated the family to a 420 acre estate in Virginia. Tom was provided with a room containing his own Steinway grand piano. For the next twenty years he spent the summers between concert tours on the Virginia estate. During the concert season when he wasn’t on the road, Tom lived in New York City with Bethune’s oldest son John, and continued to receive professional instruction to enlarge his musical repertoire. When John married Eliza Stutzbach, the owner of the boardinghouse in New York where he and Tom were living, Tom’s circumstances changed again. The marriage lasted only a short time before Eliza sued for divorce claiming John had deserted her. Before the divorce could be granted, while hurrying to board a moving train, John Bethune was accidentally caught beneath the wheels of the train and dragged to his death. A few months later, a reading of John's will revealed he had banned Eliza from receiving any inheritance claiming she was a "heartless adventuress who sought to absorb his estate." “Management” of Tom then reverted back to Bethune Sr. In retaliation, Eliza engineered an alliance with Tom's elderly mother Charity to gain custody. The custody case dragged through the courts for several years as Charity pursued legal remedies to have control of Tom's life placed in Eliza's hands. Finally, in 1887, a federal court ordered Bethune to surrender Tom into the hands of Charity and his former daughter-in-law Eliza Bethune. On the date of surrender, the Bethune family who had made a fortune estimated at $750,000 at the hands of “Blind Tom” (making him the highest “paid” musician of the time), gave possession of him over to his mother. One month later, Tom was again on the concert stage and now a source of income for Eliza who promoted him as "the last slave set free by order of the Supreme Court of the United States," Tom's performances continued throughout the United States and Canada. He now performed under his father's surname as Thomas Greene Wiggins. With the exception of his brief reunion with Charity who soon returned to Georgia, nothing else had changed. Tom spent the remainder of his life “in the care of” Eliza. Performances, concerts and vaudeville acts continued until 1904. Tom died at age fifty-nine at Eliza's home in Hoboken. A few days later The New York Times headline read "BLIND TOM, PIANIST, DIES OF A STROKE -- A CHILD ALL HIS LIFE." Newspaper coverage reported that Eliza laid Tom to rest in Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. 


Sewing Song (Imitation Of A Sewing Machine)