• Historic Columbus

Showstoppers and Curtain Raisers: Thomas Wiggins ("Blind Tom")

Today, we are honoring the talent and telling the story of Thomas Wiggins, also known by his stage name - "Blind Tom." Thomas Wiggins was a human mockingbird. What he heard; he could reproduce.

Born into slavery in 1849, Tom was the first African American to give a musical performance at the White House for President James Buchanan. Following the Civil War, Tom (now sixteen) was traveling the United States and Europe with his now guardian, General James Bethune. While his talent was highly regarded, Tom remained under guardianship by the Bethune family until his death in 1908.

For August and September, we will showcase our town's cultural arts history, along with special spotlights on local icons such as Blind Tom, Ma Rainey, Nunally Johnson, Carson McCullers, and Alma Thomas. All of these stories (and more!) will become a part of a second history exhibit at the RiverCenter, opening in January.

Thank you all so much for your continued interest in these spotlights. Remember, if you have any ideas - I'm always grateful for them. Historic preservation only flourishes because of your passion for the history of this town, its stories, and its people. If you have any questions or concerns, never hesitate to contact the HCF Office – 706-322-0756 or hcfinc@historiccolumbus.com.

SOURCES: In Order of Appearance: Chronicling 135 years on America’s Most Celebrated Stage, F. Clason Kyle, 2006. Showboats to Softshoes: A Century of Musical Development in Columbus, Georgia from 1828 to 1928, Katherine H. Mahan, 1967. Blind Tom, Unique as Musical Prodigy, W.C. Woodall’s Industrial Index, 1957. Blind Tom, The Black Pianist - Composer: Continually Enslaved by Geneva Handy Southall, 1999.

 

Thomas Wiggins was born into slavery on May 25, 1849, on the Wiley Edward Jones Plantation in Harris County. Blind from birth, he was sold in 1850 when General James Neil Bethune, a Columbus lawyer and newspaper editor, purchased his enslaved parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, and two of his brothers. The Bethune plantation, Solitude, was located on part of what is now the main campus for Columbus State University. From infancy Tom manifested an extraordinary fondness for the musical sounds he heard and had shown exceptional retentive skills. Tom began going outside at all hours of the night, following, and imitating any animal noises he heard. Though his behavior was labeled as that of an "idiot" at the time, most experts today believe that Tom was a person with autism, explaining his extraordinary memory and talent for mimicry.

The Columbus Museum purchase made possible by Daniel P. and Kathelen V. Amos, Julie and Mizell Alexander, Friends of the Museum, and Gift by Exchange of Jim and Marge Krum.


According to most accounts, Tom demonstrated his aptitude for music before his fourth birthday, having slipped unnoticed to the piano and picked out several tunes he had heard played by the Bethune daughters, all of whom were accomplished musicians. After that revelation, Mary Bethune became his piano teacher. She had studied with Professor George W. Chase, a highly respected New York – trained pianist – composer – conductor living and teaching in Columbus. General Bethune soon moved Tom into the main house, and he learned quickly by taking lessons from local musicians and playing for hours each day. Soon after, 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. At the age of five, he gave his first performance and composed a version of his first piece, "Rainstorm," describing it as "what the wind, thunder, and rain said to me." Blind Tom was a human mockingbird. What he heard; he could reproduce.

The Columbus Museum purchase made possible by The General Acquisitions Fund


In 1858, Perry Oliver, the first of Tom's many managers, developed the stage name "Blind Tom" as the boy toured throughout the South. Oliver was a Savannah tobacco planter, who was under a three-year contract with General Bethune and was paid $15,000 for the right to exhibit Tom in other parts of the country. An invitation in 1860 to play for President James Buchanan made Tom the first African American to give a musical performance at the White House. When the Civil War began, Tom performed benefit concerts at Columbus' Temperance Hall and in other southern cities to raise money for Confederate soldiers and their families, under the direction of the Bethunes. It was during this time that he composed his most famous work, "The Battle of Manassas." Encouraged to be tested by members of doubting audiences, one former Columbusite challenged him by playing a novel selection for the left hand, her right hand held behind her back. Tom duplicated the piece, also with his right hand behind him, seemingly without any instruction.

The Columbus Museum purchase made possible by Daniel P. and Kathelen V. Amos, Julie and Mizell Alexander, Friends of the Museum, and Gift by Exchange of Jim and Marge Krum.


Determined to continue his monetary control over Tom’s talents in case of Confederate defeat, General Bethune persuaded Tom’s parents to sign a five-year indenture agreement giving him legal guardianship of Tom. General Bethune then left for Florida with Tom to join his daughters who had already gone there to be with relatives following the capture of Atlanta in September 1864. Although Bethune returned to Columbus shortly following the war, he left soon after with his two sons to exhibit Tom in the north after President Andrew Johnson removed the federal blockade of southern states. It was after his third concert in New Albany, Indiana (July 16, 1865), that Tabbs Gross, a Black entertainment promoter from Cincinnati, brought legal action against General Bethune, claiming that he, not Bethune, was Tom’s guardian – based on a bill-of-sale agreement made between himself and Bethune in Macon, Georgia.

When General Bethune and his sons left New Albany to avoid legal action, Tabbs followed them to Cincinnati where Tom was scheduled for a week’s engagement. Tabbs filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus suit against the Bethunes. The guardianship trial was held before Judge Woodruff of the Hamilton County Probate Court. The Judge ruled in favor of General Bethune. The guardianship agreement also permitted the Bethunes to receive ninety percent of Tom’s earnings. Though Tom was only sixteen at the time of the trial, his repertoire included many of the most technically and musically demanding works of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Thalbert, and other European masters. Like other pianists of that time, he demonstrated his improvisational and theoretical skills by performing variations and fantasias on operatic airs and popular ballads of the day. In 1866, Tom was taken on a European concert tour by General Bethune, who collected testimonials about Tom's natural talents from composer-pianist Ignaz Moscheles and pianist-conductor Charles Hallé. These were printed in a booklet, "The Marvelous Musical Prodigy Blind Tom", and used to bolster Tom's international reputation. He would also do musical tricks on stage. One involved playing “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with one hand and “Yankee Doodle” with the other, while singing “Early in the Morning.” He could also repeat political speeches he had heard months before, mimicking the vocal cadences of the speaker, even in foreign languages unknown to him.

The Columbus Museum purchase made possible by Daniel P. and Kathelen V. Amos, Julie and Mizell Alexander, Friends of the Museum, and Gift by Exchange of Jim and Marge Krum.


By 1870, General Bethune's five-year indentured contract for guardianship of Tom (age 21) had ended. However, General Bethune then requested that the courts declare Tom legally insane in order to continue the guardianship. The courts complied.


Tom's fame and talent grew exponentially as he toured America and Europe, playing sonatas by Beethoven, virtuosic works by Liszt, and his own original compositions in packed theaters and concert halls. Time between tours was spent at the Bethunes' new home in Warrenton, Virginia, or apartments in New York City where Tom took lessons. Mark Twain became so fascinated with Blind Tom's story that he once attended concerts three nights in a row, later writing a vivid account. By 1879, Tom's concerts and sales of his sheet music were netting close to $20,000 annually, equivalent to more than $280,000 today, but Tom and his family received none of the income. On February 10, 1879, Tom Wiggins returned to Columbus to perform at the Spinger Opera House. It was standing room only.

Tom was now living in New York with his guardian/manager John Bethune (General James Bethune’s son). In 1882, John married his landlady, Eliza Stutzbach, who had demonstrated a knack for mollifying Tom's sometimes volatile temperament. However, shortly after their marriage, John Bethune embarked on an extended tour of the U.S. with Tom, in effect abandoning Eliza. When Bethune returned home eight months later, his wife filed for divorce. The couple split up—John took Tom—but a bitter legal squabble ensued, with Eliza hounding John for financial support, a claim that the courts adjudicated in John's favor. After John Bethune died in a railway accident in 1884, Tom was returned—over Eliza's objections—to the care of General Bethune (now living in Virginia). Eliza sued General Bethune for custody, with Tom's elderly mother Charity enjoined by Eliza's attorney as a party in the plaintiff's suit. After a protracted custody battle in several courts, in August 1887, Tom was awarded to Eliza. She then moved Tom back to New York.

Charity accompanied them with the understanding that she would live with Tom, and they would benefit financially from Tom's earnings. However, after it became apparent that Eliza did not intend to honor any financial obligations to Charity, Tom's mother returned to Georgia. Charity Wiggins returned to Columbus within nine months, claiming that the remarried Eliza Bethune Lerche was trying to turn her son against her. Charity never saw her son again. Charity Wiggins was said to have had 21 children, but 12 is the number several sources state. In Columbus towards the latter part of her life, she lived on the south side of Twenty-seventh Street – the site of present-day Ashley’s Station. Her home faced the Waverly Terrace Historic District. She deplored the separation from her son. Her quote (from 1900) regarding her son is reprinted in the 1957 Industrial Index article about Blind Tom – “They won’t let Thomas come to see me, and I am not allowed to see him.” She always referred to him as Thomas. Charity died in 1905 at the age of 108 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Tom continued performing and touring for a number of years under the management of Eliza and her attorney (and later husband) Albrecht Lerche. Tom was on tour in western Pennsylvania in May 1889 on the day of the Johnstown Flood, and rumor spread that he was among the casualties. Despite his continued appearances on the U.S. concert circuit, the rumor persisted for years, with some observers expressing skepticism that the Blind Tom who appeared in concert after 1889 wasn’t the "real Blind Tom." The last few years of Tom's life saw his star dim as America's musical tastes changed, though he kept performing periodically in concert halls and vaudeville venues. When not touring, the Lerches shuffled Tom between an East Side tenement and a country estate in the Navesink Highlands of coastal New Jersey, a home purchased with Tom’s earnings.

Cyclone Gallop, 1887 - The Columbus Museum purchase made possible by Daniel P. and Kathelen V. Amos, Julie and Mizell Alexander, Friends of the Museum, and Gift by Exchange of Jim and Marge Krum.


Tom's career came to a sudden end in 1904 when he was "stricken with paralysis." Neighbors in Lerche's Hoboken, New Jersey, tenement reported that Tom continued playing for hours at a time until stopping abruptly eight weeks before his death from a stroke at the age of 59 on June 13, 1908. Wiggins’s lack of emotional development coupled with extraordinary musical ability made him prime for exploitation. Thomas Wiggins was under the continued guardianship of the Bethune family following emancipation until his death in 1908. Today, Thomas Wiggins is memorialized with two tombstones, one in Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery and one in Midland, Georgia at the home Westmoreland, near the land where he first began to play.

Next Week: Next Thursday, we will continue the story of Columbus' cultural arts history with highlighting the creation of the Springer Opera House and the Liberty Theatre. Thank you all again for your continued interest in these emails and for your support of preservation! See you next week!

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