Tabbs Gross sues James Bethune and his sons claiming he had bill-of-sale for Blind Tom Wiggins' services
Why is Tom compelled to support Bethune and his two able-bodied sons who, fresh from the ranks of treason, are making the tour of the North with abundant leisure and purses well filled by the talents of what they would have us believe, an idiot? Why don't they go to work?”— Cincinnati Enquirer
The first legal challenge to the indenture was filed in July, 1865 by a Black business man named Tabbs Gross, during an engagement Tom had in Indiana, claiming that he had a bill-of-sale for Tom's services. James Bethune and his two sons quickly left the state with Wiggins, but Gross followed them to Cincinnati and filed a Writ of Habeus Corpus against them. Professor Southall continues the story:
As was revealed in my first book of the Blind Tom series (Minneapolis: Challenge Productions, Inc., 1979), this historic "guardianship trial," which was held before Judge Woodruff of the Hamilton County Probate Court, had both political and racial overtones, and ended with the judge's decision to allow Bethune, an ex-slave owner, to keep Tom in a "neo-chattel" relationship. Inasmuch as the guardianship agreement permitted the Bethunes to receive ninety percent of Tom's earnings with nothing to guarantee that they would not expropriate the ten percent promised to Tom and his parents, the trial offered one more example of how ex-slave owners were able to re-enslave their slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation notwithstanding.
In the July 25th, 1865, Cincinnati Enquirer, the editor, speaking to the humane aspects of the decision, asked: "why is Tom compelled to support Bethune and his two able-bodied sons who, fresh from the ranks of treason, are making the tour of the North with abundant leisure and purses well filled by the talents of what they would have us believe, an idiot? Why don't they go to work?'
After the War's end, Tom, who never knew he was free because he had never actually known he was a Negro slave, was launched upon another tour which included appearances in major cities of the Northern states. One of the first in New Albany, Indiana sparked a monumental news event. Tabbs Gross, an entertainment promoter sometimes described as the nation's black P. T. Barnum, came forward claiming Bethune had accepted his down payment toward an agreed upon $20,000 in gold for possession of Blind Tom. He further claimed Bethune later changed his mind without returning his full down payment. The Bethune entourage, with Tom in tow, hastily exited New Albany and fled to Ohio.
Tabbs Gross and his lawyer pursued the Bethunes into Ohio and the civil case for ownership of Blind Tom's services came to court in Cincinnati with a flurry of newspaper attention lasting well over a week during July 1865. Medical examiners who interviewed sixteen year old Tom reported that he was extremely emotional and "might become combative if taken from those who were then treating him so kindly." When the examiners asked Tom how he as able to play so well, he only responded "God taught Tom." In this case of a black man pitted against a white man for possession of a Negro youngster, the judge rendered the decision in favor of Bethune. Newspaper coverage from far and wide concerning the case provided a wildfire of publicity and fanned the flames of public desire to see "Blind Tom."