Thomas Greene Bethune, also known as Thomas Wiggins or “Blind Tom”, was not a minstrel performer but was nonetheless a victim of the relationship of wonder and revulsion that 19th century white Americans had with black entertainers. Most sources agree that Wiggins was born blind in Georgia in 1849 and was “thrown in” with his mother, Charity, during her sale to a Colonel Bethune in 1850. It is also generally agreed upon that Wiggins was an extraordinarily talented composer and had an affinity for music as a child. At four years old, he composed his first musical piece. At eight years old, he was hired out to his manager/owner, Perry Oliver, and taken on a musical tour of the United States and Europe. Wiggins composed the pieces displayed in this exhibit, titled “Rain Storm” and “Daylight”, before the age of ten years old. Without a doubt, Blind Tom was an extraordinary child who his master and his master’s family used for their personal financial gain.
With all of these facts known about “Blind Tom” the entertainer, very little is known about Thomas Wiggins the man. He was blind and according to various sources, he had some sort of developmental disability although the extent of and name of the disability is lost to history due to the lack of medical knowledge at the time. The sources themselves are questionable because they are from white men who often gave contradictory accounts about Thomas’s intelligence and reasoning abilities. Often their accounts of him and his talent are tainted with fear, confusion, racism, and bigotry and thus cannot be totally believed.
However, there is a substantial amount of information about Thomas that can be garnered from these less than ideal accounts. For example, John A’Becket, in “Blind Tom As He Is Today” (1898), wrote after meeting Thomas that he “will always be a child,” but this comment came after Thomas insulted him. A’Becket hid his anger with Thomas by explaining that “his actions are sometimes saved from rudeness only by his simplicity.” A’Becket also stated that Thomas “made no remark to any one actually present except when addressed” but then described him as intelligent, dignified and prideful in his conversation.
Could it be that Thomas had a slight disability or even no disability at all that he consciously exaggerated in order to be able to act outside of the racial barriers of the time? Geneva Southall, author of “Blind Tom: A Misrepresented and Neglected Composer-Pianist,” seems to think so. In Southall’s essay, Thomas is presented as a misunderstood man. Southall contends the traditional account of Thomas as an imbecile is because of his “childish and animal-like behavior on stage” and states that it is “entirely possible that Tom’s managers might have deliberately cultivated such behavior in order to suggest to audiences that Tom’s genius derived from occult practices,” which would have added to his mystery and popularity with white audiences. Southall also points to the heated custody battle that occurred between Thomas’s mother and the Bethune family after Thomas was freed as a sign that he was not as dependent as advertisements and eyewitness accounts portrayed him to be. Southall asks the question, “why …would the Bethunes be so determined to retain the legal custodianship of an ‘idiot’ who would be a physical and economic liability to them?” She also states that there is evidence that “Tom passed numerous tests designed to test his knowledge of music theory” not just his ability to imitate sounds and compositions. Also emphasized in both eyewitness accounts and in Southall’s essay is the complexity of the hundred-plus musical pieces Thomas composed throughout his lifetime. To Southall all of this evidence points to a much more intelligent and self-aware Thomas Wiggins than whites of his time would have liked to admit. Admitting so would have forced them to acknowledge Thomas as a musical genius. Instead, they painted a virtual, idiotic “blackface” on Thomas and created the character “Blind Tom” to market his persona and fit the assumed inferiority of blacks.