Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (May 25, 1849 – June 14, 1908) was an American musical prodigy on the piano. He had numerous original compositions published and had a lengthy and largely successful performing career throughout the United States. During the 19th century, he was one of the best-known American performing pianists and one of the best-known African-American musicians. Although he lived and died before autism was described, he is now regarded as an autistic savant.
Thomas Wiggins, nicknamed Blind Tom by his “handlers”, was the first African American man to perform at the White House.
He was born into a dreadful institution of American slavery in the state of Georgia. As his owner could not exploit and benefit from Thomas’ physical abilities, he took advantage of the talent that God gave to Thomas.
Having heard Thomas play the piano, General James Neil Bethune, Thomas’ owner, allowed Thomas to have open access to the piano. Soon, Thomas was perfectly regurgitating classical piano compositions and even composing original pieces of his own. Unfortunately, Thomas was not able to develop and maintain social relationships. The autism made it difficult for the blind boy to communicate his emotions and needs. Consequently, General James took full advantage of the opportunity to exploit and control Thomas’ musical gift.
James Neil Bethune and Perry Oliver, handlers of Thomas, earned upwards of $100,000 a year, which is the equivalent of $1.5 million in today’s society. Sadly, Thomas did not receive even one cent. Instead, Oliver likened Thomas to a circus act, pointing out that Thomas was a “freak.” Some of the advertisements read, “From animal to artist.” Oliver also referred to Thomas as a baboon, monkey, and gorilla.
Historians feel that Thomas Wiggins was one of the country’s most important musical artists. However, because Thomas was African American, a slave, and disabled, his musical contributions are often ignored and minimized by mainstream historians.