A Nineteenth-Century Piano Savant

by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor

A 19th-century photograph of pianist Thomas Wiggins shows a stout young black man at rest on an overstuffed chair. His eyes are closed, and his hands curl delicately on his lap. He looks distinguished, confident, untroubled — and drowsy.

Tom Wiggins photographed with his "Rain Storm" composition, c. 1861

Tom Wiggins photographed with his “Rain Storm” composition, c. 1861

It’s a shock, then, to learn that a reporter once called him “little more than an uncouth but inspired animal.” People called him many things: freak, prodigy, angel, imbecile. They rarely called him Thomas Wiggins. A half-century of concertgoers knew him only as Blind Tom.

Wiggins gained  fame for his astonishing musical gifts — his perfect pitch, his ability to replicate at the keyboard anything he had ever heard, his quickness in recalling the 7,000 pieces in his repertoire — and for his alleged imbecility. (He was, in fact, possibly autistic.) Over the years, he became the world’s best known bearer of savant syndrome, a condition in which a mentally disabled person has a single outstanding skill. [I have previously written about Max Weisberg, another person with savant syndrome.]

Born blind in 1849 near Columbus, Georgia, he became a slave of General James Neil Bethune, a leading advocate of Southern succession. He could sing skillfully as a toddler and became a keyboard prodigy after the Bethune family bought a piano in the early 1850s. In 1857, Wiggins gave his first public recital in Columbus. The novelty of his performance — virtuoso playing by an apparently witless slave boy — led to engagements all over the country, from New Orleans to New York.

There was genius, however, in Wiggins’s keyboard interpretations and original compositions. In addition to well-known classical pieces, he played his own moving works, as well as pianistic impressions of bagpipes, a rainstorm, a sewing machine, a Civil War battle, and a brass band. Audiences eagerly awaited the segment of Wiggins’s program in which spectators could mount the stage and challenge him to reproduce anything that they played on the piano. One one occasion, he successfully played back a piece using both of his hands and his nose, just as the challenger had.

In 1864, General Bethune formed an alliance with Wiggins’s parents that for decades kept Wiggins in bondage, regardless of the Emancipation Proclamation. The contract awarded Bethune control of the pianist’s career and 90 percent of all concert receipts. As one of America’s most popular entertainers, Wiggins made Bethune a fortune.

Wiggins’s performing schedule remained full from the 1860s through the end of the century. “Tom has been seen probably more than any one living being,” wrote one biographer. During this time a custody battle flared in which Bethune’s daughter-in-law took control of his career. Willa Cather, haunted by one of his performances in Nebraska,  used Wiggins as the model for the character Blind d’Arnault in My Ántonia. At the turn of the century, he ended his four decades of virtually uninterrupted touring with a stint in vaudeville.

In 1908, Wiggins suffered a stroke in Hoboken, New Jersey. He died at his piano.

More information:

John Davis Plays Blind Tom: The Eighth Wonder. Newport Classics audio CD, 2000.

O’Connell, Dierdre. The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist. Overlook Press, 2009.

Southall, Geneva Handy. Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved. Scarecrow Press, 2002.

  • http://patrickrhone.com/ patrickrhone

    Geneva Southall was my Grandmother. Her life’s work was researching the life of Blind Tom Wiggins. She wrote three books on the subject and all of the information above is due to her uncovering it. As so often happens with African-American Women, their work often goes uncredited. So, thank you soooo much for including her in the more information credits.

    • Jack El-Hai

      Patrick, thanks for mentioning this. I briefly conversed with your grandmother when she was a distinguished professor at the University of Minnesota, and I first heard about Thomas Wiggins from her. She was a remarkable and gifted scholar.

      • http://patrickrhone.com/ patrickrhone

        Wow! That is so cool. If there is anything I can do to assist you in your own research here please let me know.