Some autistic individuals who possess extraordinary skills are called “savants.” Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins was an African-American autistic savant musical prodigy who mastered the piano. With numerous original compositions published and a long-running successful performance career, he became one of the best-known American pianists.
Born blind on May 25, 1849, Tom, along with his parents, was sold in 1850 to General James Neil Bethune. Tom’s blindness prevented him from performing work demanded of slaves, causing him to be of no economic value to his owners. Initially they proposed killing Tom but later left him alone, a freedom that allowed him to explore the Bethune plantation.
Young Tom developed an early interest in the piano after hearing the instrument played by Bethune’s daughters. By age 4, he acquired some piano skills by ear. He soon gained access to the instrument and by age 5, composed his first tune: “The Rain Storm.” This composition was created after listening to the melodious cadence of a rainstorm pounding against the roof.
In fact, Tom could repeat any sound he’d heard—from animals around the farm to birds in the trees. He had the ability to parrot conversations and recite a political speech made by a presidential candidate, including the heckles and cheers of the crowd.
At 9 years old, Tom was hired out as a slave musician. One year later he became the first African-American to play at the White House, performing before Pres. James Buchanan. His piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860.
By age 16, Tom, now indentured to James Bethune, mastered the difficult works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg. He performed pieces after hearing them once, and memorized poems and texts in foreign languages.
Many did not believe that Tom could master difficult works by ear, so he was often challenged: audiences would have Tom hear and then perform two new, uncirculated compositions. He always did so perfectly. This challenge would eventually become part of his performance.
Tom’s most famous work, “The Battle of Manassas,” tells the story of the Confederate Army’s 1861 victory at the Battle of Bull Run. This piece was not supported by the Black media, who refused to write about Tom because they felt he was “just a source of profit for slaveholders.”
Tom toured Europe, where he received accolades from composer-pianist Ignaz Moscheles and pianist-conductor Charles Hallé. These were printed in the booklet: “The Marvelous Musical Prodigy Blind Tom.”
Tom suffered a major stroke in April 1908 and died the following June. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York. No original recordings of Blind Tom appear to exist. His sheet music is available, but only a small number of musicians have ever recorded his original songs.