The Marvelous Musical Prodigy

Thomas Greene Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom

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This flute was made by one of the finest flute makers of the late nineteenth century, William R. Meinell, and is a beautiful example of a modern, high-end instrument of the time. While the flute has interesting material attributes, it is the story of the person who used this artifact that I find truly fascinating. Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins (May 25, 1849 – June 14, 1908) was a blind African American autistic savant and musical prodigy. During the late nineteenth century, he was one of the most famous American pianists and popular performers. Tom was born enslaved in Columbus, Georgia. His enslaver, James Bethune, discovered Tom's musical abilities and began holding public concerts in the town when Tom was only 8 years old. His first compositions were published in 1860 when he was only 11 years old. The Bethune’s continued to hold concerts featuring Tom throughout the Civil War, with much of the proceeds going to support the Confederacy. Tom's best known composition, "Battle of Manassas," was composed in 1861 upon Tom's hearing a recounting by a soldier of the first battle at Bull Run. Tom's compositions often sample popular music and offer interpretations of natural and mechanical sounds.

Flute made for Blind Tom by William R. Meinell with original instrument case, 1879-1884

Flute made for Blind Tom by William R. Meinell with original instrument case, 1879-1884. William R. Meinell 2014.138

Biographer Deirdre O'Connell argues that Tom, blind at birth, was also autistic. Dozens of descriptions of those who saw his performances describe behaviors consistent with an autistic savant. In addition to music, Tom's performances included mimicking famous speeches and spontaneous gymnastic feats. As an autistic, blind, African American in the nineteenth century, Tom was exploited at every turn. No one who controlled Tom’s career and the money made from his music and tours ever seemed to consider him as more than a lucrative curiosity. After the Civil War, Tom's parents signed a five year indenture to James Bethune. From 1870, when the indenture was up, until death from a stroke in 1908, Tom was under the legal guardianship of Bethune family members based on the argument that Tom was an idiot. The Bethune family made thousands of dollars through their ownership and then legal guardianship of Tom. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Brooklyn, New York. 

Audience members often recognized Tom’s joy in hearing their reactions to his music; it was apparent to many that he liked performing. Balancing what little is known of Tom’s own perceptions of his life and career with the blatant manipulations of the Bethune family is a complicated task. Today, his status as a celebrated American composer and famous performer have been relegated to the margins of American music history due to his disability and his race. -Katie Knowles, Cataloger

No matter what they have read or heard, or what they might be lead to expect, none have heard him for the first time, without a feeling of astonishment, and an involuntary acknowledgment to themselves that the reality had exceeded the expectation . . .

Anonymous Blind Tom, The Great Negro Pianist, ca. 1876