Blind Tom Wiggins
Category: Ill or disabled
Nobody thought he would be worth anything as a slave.
Born on May 25, 1849, it was apparent from the beginning that Thomas was blind. His parents, Domingo Wiggins and Charity Greene, and his two brothers were purchased by James Bethune, a
Georgia landowner, when Tom was an infant. Since he would never be more than a burden, their blind son was added to his parents' bill of sale at no extra cost. Following the custom of the time, Tom and his parents took their master's surname and he would be known as Thomas Greene Bethune for much of his life.
Since Tom was considered an idiot as well as blind (idiot being a legitimate medical term then) with nobody else to care for him, Charity had to bring him with her to the big house while she worked as a maid for the Bethune family. All the Bethune children were musically inclined and Tom spent his early childhood listening to them learning to sing and play piano. He quickly astonished them with his amazing talent at echolalia as well as imitating animal and bird calls. By the time he was four years old, he was sitting at a keyboard and able to reproduce any complex piece of music after only hearing it briefly.
The Bethunes treated Tom like the family pet and allowed him to sit in on the music lessons. They also began teaching him language for the first time in his life (a blind slave hadn't been considered worth educating before then). By the age of six, he began creating his own musical compositions based on sounds that he heard around him. James Bethune began arranging music lessons for the young prodigy (even though he initially thought that Tom had no more intelligence than "the family dog"). These music teachers marveled at Tom's ability and commented that he picked up skills in hours that took most pianists years to learn.
You can read about his concert career in the observation.
Tom spent his summers living at the Bethune estate near Warrenton, Virginia in between concert seasons. He had his own room and piano where he could play and write music. Otherwise, he and John lived in New York City where Tom continued his music education when he wasn't on the road. He seemed happy enough despite his exhausting concert schedule but John often had to deal with Tom's frequent temper tantrums.
John Bethune's accidental death in 1884 sparked a crisis when his ex-wife Eliza, aided by Tom's mother, went to court to take custody away from James Bethune.
His concert career continued as before (although his stage name was changed to Thomas Greene Wiggins) with Eliza in charge. She and her new husband oversaw Tom's career with an almost nonstop series of concerts across the entire United States and Canada. While Tom was able to adjust to his new home with Eliza, things were never the same for him. As for Charity Greene, she returned to Georgia after signing away all rights to her son. In a 1900 newspaper interview, Charity bitterly reported that she had not seen her son in years and had made almost no money from his career despite his success. She died in 1902.
The musical touring continued until 1904 when Tom's health problems made life on the road impossible. His last concert was in Boston in 1905. Even living in seclusion at Eliza's Hoboken home, Tom spent his days playing the piano and pretending that he was still giving concerts. He died from "cerebral apoplexy" (stroke) on June 13, 1908 at the age of 59.
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