Thomas Wiggins was a musician, born in slavery in the year 1850, in Georgia. He was known as a virtuoso of Liszt and Rubinstein and was the one who was completely unaware of how famous he was.
Some people call him a complex character who left nothing behind in the world. There’s very little information about this genius who once performed in the White House.
Life Of America’s First Black Music Star: Blind Tom
At an early age, he was sold to General James Neil Bethune, an editor of a newspaper and a lawyer based in Georgia. Thomas was blind and had an unusual behavior. He was interested in different sounds and was curious to learn about them, especially piano sounds.
According to sources, when Thomas played the piano for the first time, he was able to play the compositions he had heard from Bethune’s daughter. She was an accomplished musician, and Thomas was only four years at that time.
Thomas wrote his first composition, “The Rain Storm,” at the tender age of five and was performing in Georgia by the age of six. He was advertised as a blind boy, who is naturally talented and an untrained musician, who could imitate sounds that he hears.
At the age of 8 years, he was known as Blind Tom and was loaned to a concert promoter Perry Oliver. Perry Oliver toured with him all across the U.S. He performed nearly four times a day and was earning more than $100k a year. But all the money he earned was given to the promoter and the owner. He was still a slave, though he wasn’t aware of that.
In 1860, He became the first black musician to perform at White House. And President Lincoln was also considering to enlist Tom in the Union’s service. He had accumulated many fans, including the likes of John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and Mark Twain. Mark Twain was a regular attendee at the events where Tom was performing, and he even called Tom an angel.
Willia Cather used to praise Tom for his incredible memory rather than musical talent. But she wasn’t the only one, there were many scenarios when people said he was fooling people with his musical skills, but his primary skills were just an incredible memory to repeat any piece of music.
Sadly, Blind Tom was never aware of his fame or success, and he couldn’t even take care of himself properly. Doctors declared him as non-compos mentis (meaning not having control of one’s mind). But with time as the information on autism improved, long after his death, it became clear that Tom was having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Tom’s well-being depended on the goodwill of his owners Bethunes, who had fought over his custody as if he was their property. He always spoke about himself in the third person like Tom likes that. Throughout his life, he was unaware that he was a slave.
Bling Tom was the last legal Slave in the United States. He was the highest-paid artist of his time. He lived quietly away from the public eye with the former wife of John Bethune, Eliza Stutzbach. He died in the year 1908, at the age of 58. Though he died early, he still got the title of America’s first black music star.