Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 164–175 | Cite as

‘Blind Tom’ abroad: race, disability, and transatlantic representations of Thomas Wiggins

  • Whitney Womack SmithEmail author


Congenitally blind with cognitive disabilities that led to his diagnosis as an ‘idiotic genius’, nineteenth-century African-American musical prodigy Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins was nonetheless one of the most popular performers of his age. This article examines the ways that Wiggins’ identity was constructed and mediated through transatlantic eyes through his introduction to British readers by American writer Rebecca Harding Davis and the publicity materials created from his 1866–1867 European tour. This article expands the geographical focus of Blind Tom scholarship, considering him as a transatlantic phenomenon positioned between boundaries based on his race, citizenship, disability, and talent.


Blind Tom race disability Rebecca Harding Davis freak shows 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    The Marvelous Musical Prodigy, Blind Tom. New York: French & Wheat, 1868, 26. Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Daniel A. P. Murray Pamphlets Collection,∼ammem_SwcE:: (accessed March 12, 2015).
  2. 2.
    Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 1.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sirpa Salenius, ’Troubling the White Supremacy-Black Inferiority Paradigm: Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown in Europe’, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 14, no. 2 (2016).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Geneva H. Southall, Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    During his lifetime, Tom was known alternately as Thomas Greene Wiggins, with his biological parents’ surname, and Thomas Bethune, with his owner’s surname. Throughout this essay, I refer to him as Wiggins.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Christopher Krentz, ‘A ‘Vacant Receptacle’? Blind Tom, Cognitive Difference, and Pedagogy’, PMLA, 120, no. 2 (2005), 553. For further discussion of disabled slaves and ‘useless-ness’, seeGoogle Scholar
  7. 6a.
    Dea Bolster, “Useless’: Disability, Slave Labor, and Contradiction on Antebellum Southern Plantations’, Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 7, no. 3/4 (2011), 26–33.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Joseph Straus, Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 8.
    Geneva H. Southall, Blind Tom: The Post-Civil War Enslavement of a Black Musical Genius (Minneapolis, MN: Challenge, 1979), 45.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Southall, Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer, ix.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Jim Downs, ‘The Continuation of Slavery: The Experience of Disabled Slaves During Emancipation’, Disability Studies Quarterly, Online, 28, no. 3 (2008), Scholar
  12. 11.
    ‘Blind Tom, Pianist, Dies of Stroke’, New York Times, June 15, 1908, n.p.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Jean Pfaelzer, Parlor Radical: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Origins of American Social Realism (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), 100.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    John Davis and M. Grace Baron, ‘Blind Tom: A Celebrated Slave Pianist Coping with the Stress of Autism’, in Stress and Coping in Autism, ed. M. Grace Baron, June Groden, Gerald Groden, and Lewis P. Lipsitt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 14.
    Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Knopf, 1995), 190.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    Darold A. Treffert, ‘The Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis Past, Present, Future’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, no.1522 (2009), 1351, Scholar
  17. 16.
    Ellen Samuels, ‘Reading Race through Disability: Slavery and Agency in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson and ‘Those Extraordinary Twins”, in The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature, ed. Russ Castronovo (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 60, 62.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    Mark Twain, ‘Letters from Mark Twain’, Alta California, August 1, 1869, (accessed April 15, 2015).Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    Davis’ most famous artist manqué is Hugh Wolfe, the Welsh immigrant mill-worker in ‘Life in the Iron Mills’ whose ambitions will never been fulfilled due to his socioeconomic position. Davis includes artist manqué figures in ‘Marcia’, Earthen Pitchers, A Law Unto Herself, and Frances Waldeaux.Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Sharon Harris, Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 98–99.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Quoted in Harris, Rebecca Harding Davis, 97.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    ‘Blind Black Tom’, All the Year Round, no. 182 (1862). (accessed June 1, 2015).
  23. 22.
    Rebecca Harding Davis, ‘Blind Tom’, in A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader, ed. Jean Pfaelzer (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), 104, 105.Google Scholar
  24. 23.
    Marvelous Musical Prodigy, 4.Google Scholar
  25. 24.
    Geneva H. Southall, The Continuing Enslavement of Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer (Minneapolis, MN: Challenge Productions, 1983), 64–65.Google Scholar
  26. 25.
    R. H. Davis, ‘Blind Tom’, 107, 105, 105.Google Scholar
  27. 26.
    P.T. Barnum quoted in Deirdre O’Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2009), 75.Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    R. H. Davis, ‘Blind Tom’, 110, 108, 109.Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    R. H. Davis, ‘Blind Tom’, 109, 108–109, 111, 111.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    Christy’s Minstrels, formed by Edwin Pearce Christy in the United States in 1843 and brought to Britain in 1857, became synonymous with blackface minstrelsy during the Victorian era.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    Robert Nowatzki, Representing African Americans in Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 43.Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    Quoted in Audrey Fisch, American Slaves in Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 69.Google Scholar
  33. 32.
    Nowatzki, Representing African Americans, 69.Google Scholar
  34. 33.
    Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Literature and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). Other critical examinations of freakery includeGoogle Scholar
  35. 33a.
    Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  36. 33b.
    Lillian Craton, The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th - Century Fiction (Amherst: Cambria Press, 2009)Google Scholar
  37. 33c.
    Nadja Durbach, Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010)Google Scholar
  38. 33d.
    Marlene Tromp, ed., Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  39. 34.
    Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, ‘Introduction: From Wonder to Error — A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity’, in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 7.Google Scholar
  40. 35.
    Linda Frost, One Nation: Freaks, Savages, and Whiteness in U.S. Popular Culture, 1850-1877 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 4–5.Google Scholar
  41. 36.
    Craton, The Victorian Freak Show, 27.Google Scholar
  42. 37.
    Punch, Vol. XII, September 4, 1847, 90.Google Scholar
  43. 38.
    Marvelous Musical Prodigy, 25.Google Scholar
  44. 39.
    Although it is not the consensus view of Wiggins, biographer Geneva Southall questions what she calls Wiggins’ ‘so-called imbecility’. She states ‘Of course Blind Tom was eccentric... But to what extent was this encouraged by prejudice, blindness, social isolation, and coaching?’ (xvi). She cites a poem attributed to Tom in The Marvelous Musical Prodigy as evidence of his intellect (Southall, Blind Tom, 73). However, Terry Rowden notes that ‘Southall’s championing of Tom leads to a too-ready acceptance what seems to be an obviously fraudulent document’. Rowden, The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 127.Google Scholar
  45. 40.
    Saatje Baartmann, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, was a Khosian woman from South African with ‘steatopygia’ (enlarged buttocks) who was exhibited across Europe from 1810–1815. Doctors as well as spectators regularly examined her ‘extraordinary body’, which upon death her body was dissected and displayed in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Bernth Lindfors, ‘Ethnological Show Business: Footlighting the Dark Continent’, in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 208. Like Wiggins, the McKoy twins, billed as the ‘Two-Headed Nightingale’, were born into slavery and exhibited by their masters. As Ellen Samuels describes, they underwent frequent medical examinations, including pelvic exams. Samuels, ‘Examining Millie and Christine McKoy: Where Enslavement and Enfreakment Meet’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 37, no. 1 (2011), 53–81.Google Scholar
  46. 41.
    Garland-Thomson, ‘Introduction: From Wonder to Error’, 7.Google Scholar
  47. 42.
    Marvelous Musical Prodigy, 10, 11, 11.Google Scholar
  48. 43.
    Marvelous Musical Prodigy, 12.Google Scholar
  49. 44.
    Dierdre O’Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America’s Lost Musical Genius (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2009), 169.Google Scholar
  50. 45.
    Krentz, ‘A ‘Vacant Receptacle’?’ 554.Google Scholar
  51. 46.
    Davis and Grace Baron, ‘Blind Tom: A Celebrated Slave Pianist’, 101; Rowden, Songs of Blind Folk, 21.Google Scholar
  52. 47.
    Quoted in Stephen M. Best, The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 55. Cather would go on to model the character of Blind D’Arnault after Wiggins in her novel My Ántonia (1918).Google Scholar
  53. 48.
    Straus, Extraordinary Measures, 135.Google Scholar
  54. 49.
    Rowden, Songs of Blind Folk, 21.Google Scholar
  55. 50.
    Wiggins’ music has been resurrected with the CD John Davis Plays Blind Tom: The Eighth Wonder, released in 2000, which features 14 of Wiggins’ published compositions and liner notes by Oliver Sacks, Ricky Jay, and Amiri Baraka. Wiggins’ life is the subject of Robert Earl Price’s play Hush: Composing Blind Tom (2002), Andre T. Regan’s short documentary The Last Legal Slave in America (2006), and Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of The Shank (2014).Google Scholar
  56. 51.
    Daphne Brooks, “Puzzling the Intervals’: Blind Tom and the Poetics of the Sonic Slave Narrative’, in The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative, ed. John Ernest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 397.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishMiami University of OhioHamiltonUSA

Personalised recommendations