"Blind Tom" Wiggins was an African American prodigy who appeared in Richmond as the “Great Incomprehensible Wonder of the 19th Century.”
Tom was born in 1849 with a condition today classified as autistic savant. His parents were field slaves auctioned in Columbus, Georgia. Tom’s master thought the blind, sickly "pickaninny" had no labor potential and threw the child in at “no extra cost.” His new master thought Tom “dumb as a dog” and taught him to respond to animal commands like "sit" and "stand.”
During the early years of his life Tom's only sign of intelligence was an interest in sounds. When his mother brought him to the main house, Tom listened as children played a piano. When given access to a keyboard he astounded everyone by reproducing the sequence of chords from memory.
Since slaves with musical talent meant income for their owners, in 1858 “Blind Tom” was rented out in a concert hall and performed before an audience. Many were puzzled a “blind idiotic” slave child could master the piano, and thought it a sign of divine providence. The 9-year-old child later toured hundreds of cities in rigorous four-shows-per-day schedules that included playing at the White House.
After the Civil War “Blind Tom” performed in Richmond’s Lyceum Hall on March 28, 1873, before packed houses. The Richmond Palladium billed him as “the Most Marvelous Musical Genius Living.” Not only did he perform world classics, he astounded Wayne County audiences by turning his back to the piano and playing in reverse.
Tom” retired in 1883, never knowing the color of his skin at one
time made him a slave.
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