General James Bethune hires Perry Oliver to promote and tour "Blind Tom" Wiggins around the country
Slaves with musical talent meant income for their owners and in 1858 James Bethune "hired out" Tom to concert promoter Perry Oliver for a period of several years.
It has been estimated that Bethune pocketed $15,000 from the arranagement and that Perry Oliver made profits amounting to $50,000. Tom, now age nine, was separated from his family and exhibited throughout hundreds of cities on a rigorous four-shows-per-day schedule.
Not only could Tom perform world classics, he would astound his audiences by turning his back to the piano and giving an exact repetition--a reversal of the keys the left and right hands played. Musicians in the audience were invited to challenge Tom to a musical duel. Tom could successfully reproduce on the keyboard any piece of music a challenger would first perform. And taking that feat one step further--Tom could play a perfect bass accompaniment to the treble played by someone seated beside him--heard for the first time as he played it. Tom would often push the other performer aside and repeat the entire composition alone. When audiences applauded, Tom followed suit--mimicking the sounds of approval.
The wife of James Bethune died of "pulmonary disease", according to an obituary in the Columbus Daily Sun on May 22, 1858. Mary Bethune began looking after her younger siblings. Southall recounts:
Shortly thereafter, Tom became a hired-out slave musician to Perry Oliver, a Savannah tobacco planter, under a three-year contractual agreement with Colonel Bethune, who was paid $15,000 for the right to exhibit Tom in other parts of the country. After several concerts in Savannah, Perry Oliver began to exhibit Tom in other Southern and pro-slavery states as the "Musical Prodigy of the Age: a Plantation Negro Boy."
Southall continues that by 1861 Tom was giving prestigious performances such as one in Washington, D.C. for the first Japanese diplomats to visit the United States. As another example of his growing fame, she points out:
In addition, his Baltimore concerts of July 1860 had so impressed the famous piano manufacturer, William Knabe, that he gave the ten-year-old slave an elaborately carved rosewood grand piano with a silver plate bearing the inscription "a tribute to Genius."