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Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins - The Most Famous Person Ever Produced By Columbus, Georgia

SOURCE: Blind Tom by Clason Kyle. Columbus Ledger-Enquirer Special Sesquicentennial Supplement, April 23, 1978.

 

"The most famous person ever produced by Columbus, Georgia."

That was the subhead to an article that appeared in the July 31, 1941, issue of "The Columbus Magazine," a publication of the late W. C. Woodall, a former editor of The Enquirer. The person he described was Thomas Wiggins, also known as Thomas Green Bethune. And better known as Blind Tom, the Black musical prodigy.

This slave-born pianist, who grew up to become a musical sensation not only in the United States but in Europe as well, was born May 25, 1849, according to one source, on Gen. James N. Bethune's plantation northeast of Columbus. "The Bethune home - long since burned - stood near Lindsay Creek, west of the creek and a half-mile or so southeast of the Warm Springs highway." The historical marker near his supposed grave says that Wiggins was born in 1843. The name of the general's plantation was "Solitude."

Blind Tom was his mother's 12th child. It was not until he was about four years old that, after a party, the Bethune family was startled to hear the piano being played. Upon investigation, they discovered the small child, perched precariously on the stool, picking out a melody that had been sung at the entertainment.



From that night on, Tom and the piano were inseparable. They found too that the supposed idiot had a beautiful voice and could sing all the songs he heard. S. Louise Bing, in a Ledger-Enquirer Sunday Magazine article in 1965, wrote "The first manifestation of Tom's interest in anything was his fondness for sounds, and the first indication of capacity was his power of imitating them.

"He was a human mockingbird. The sound of the corn sheller delighted him; any sound in fact, and he could reproduce these sounds faithfully. When about seven, Tom began to compose on the piano his own melodies. A part of the house had a low roof and - when it rained — the sound of raindrops there was very distinct. Here, Tom loved to hover and listen.

"The result was “Rain Storm” which became a great favorite." (To future audiences).

When Tom was about the age of eight, Bethune decided to stage several exhibitions featuring his discovery. Tom, naturally, was a sensation. This led to a tour of not only Southern cities, but major Northern ones as well, such as New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Success there persuaded Bethune to take Tom to Europe, where, for more than three years, he appeared in concerts in England, France, and Scotland.



Continuing the Bing article, "In Paris, Tom heard Meyerbeer, Josef Hofman, Padereswski, and many others. The playing of Paderewski affected Tom so strongly, he had to be taken away. After hearing those famed masters play, Blind Tom could take the stool and reproduce perfectly anything they played. Once a great pianist played a number that took five minutes to execute and one that Tom had never heard, yet he reproduced it flawlessly."

His voice was equally remarkable, alternating along the scale from baritone to mezzo soprano with equal ease. One of his concert feats was the playing of "Yankee Doodle" in B flat with his right hand, "Fishers Hornpipe" in C with his left, all the while singing "Tramp... Tramp. Tramp," apparently without effort. It was said that he played over 7,000 pieces of music. This included many works of his own.

Bethune was once an editor of the Columbus Enquirer-Sun and the founder and editor (in 1854) of "The Corner Stone," the first real States' Rights paper of Georgia and, for some time, the only newspaper in the South to advocate the immediate dissolution of the union.

He had an operation performed on Tom's eyes in Paris, but the operation was with small success. Tom was never able to see more than closely held objects; and then only vaguely.



According to the Bing article, "That the boy was rude and uncouth was natural; for he lived in a dark world of his own, where no idea of behavior could reach him. Being husky and strong, he longed for a means of exerting his abundant energy. So, he turned cartwheels - spinning heels over head across the floor - whenever it pleased him to do so and wherever he happened to be. Conversely, he rarely spoke unless spoken to."

"Blind Tom had many peculiar eccentricities and habits. He was fond of talking to himself... and he sometimes indulged in a peculiar sort of movement. Standing on one foot, the other raised behind him, he would lean forward and jump, turning on his foot like a ballet dancer practicing a pas seul." When performing, Tom would tilt his head back to a 45-degree angle and turn his eyes upward.

The Wiggins - mother Charity, father Mingo, and son Tom — were freed at the end of the Civil War, but they chose to stay on with the Bethunes, first the General, and then later Tom's guardianship and concerts were taken over by a son of the General, John Ganby Bethune, who remained Tom's manager until the younger Bethune's death in a railway accident in 1883. His widow, Eliza Bethune, married Albert J. Lerche and they became Tom's managers.

The Lerches made their home in Hoboken, N.J., where, for many years, Tom also lived in near seclusion except for vaudeville appearances, according to an article by Eugenie B. Abbott in the 1940 August issue of "Etude Magazine." She wrote, "Of the 50 families in the building, only a few knew that there was an old Negro living there; but sometimes exquisite piano playing was heard coming from Mrs. Lerche's apartment, with no one knowing it was produced by Blind Tom."



He died in Hoboken, on June 13, 1908. In 1976, a commemorative headstone was placed at his previously unmarked grave at "Westmoreland," the country estate of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Dismuke at Midland, Georgia.

Scientists of all sorts gave Blind Tom many tests, with nearly always the same result. Only they called him different things, like "genius," "prodigy," "phenomenon." No test was more dramatic than one conducted by the former Miss Georgia Routt of Columbus, a prominent music teacher, at a Blind Tom concert before a capacity audience in the Macon Opera House.

Coerced by insistent requests from students, faculty, and the president of Wesleyan to be the tester and finally deciding that "acceptance was less conspicuous than further hesitancy," she went forward to the piano. First, she challenged his absolute pitch which Blind Tom passed with flying colors. Then she "played a novel selection for the left hand (right hand behind me). No word was spoken save the manager's explanation that this was something never before attempted. (It must be understood that no one approached Blind Tom). I expected him to imitate me with both hands according to the sound of the piece.”

"Tom didn't. He rushed to the piano, almost pushing me from the stool, and paralyzed us by playing it with his right hand behind him, I was so frightened by this uncanny climax that I left at once. The deafening applause ceased, and I was safely hidden among my college crowd of presidents, teachers, and schoolgirls. And to this day, I am wondering why Blind Tom put his right hand behind him."

Because he must have been all those things the various scientists called him. Genius. Prodigy. Phenomenon.

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