Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins was a blind piano prodigy so popular that it has been alleged that he was the highest-paid pianist of the 19th Century. Wiggins was celebrated for his ability, but his success came at the price of his dignity.
Wiggins was born May 25, 1849 to slave parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins in Harris County, Ga. The family was sold to Columbus lawyer, Gen. James Bethune. Because of Wiggins’ blindness, he didn’t work, but by age four, people noticed that Wiggins could imitate sounds and music. He then started to pick up piano notes and songs. Bethune sensed that the child was gifted and nurtured Wiggins with lessons and access to music.
By the time he was nine years old, Wiggins reportedly made as much as $15,000 per performance, which were billed as “exhibitions.” In essence, Bethune rendered Wiggins into a slave-musician who fattened the pockets of his owners. According to accounts, Wiggins could play his own takes on classic works from Bach, Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart along with using the piano to imitate other sounds. Because of his extraordinary memory, Wiggins became a novelty act and played games with the audience by playing their original compositions note for note.
If Wiggins could hear it, he could also play it, while adding his own flair. In 1875, Bethune gifted Wiggins to his son, John, who toured with the pianist for the next eight years. The younger Bethune eventually lost his ownership of Wiggins after he abandoned his wife, Eliza, who apparently connected with the piano player. After returning to Georgia after an extensive tour with Wiggins, the couple went through a bitter divorce and legal wrangling that also involved Wiggins’ mother.