Custody of Blind Tom Wiggins granted to Eliza Stutzbach, widow of John Bethune
On July 30, 1887, a federal court ordered General Bethune to surrender Tom at Arlington, Virginia into the hands of Charity and his former daughter-in-law Eliza Bethune.
Newspapers reported Tom, disappointed and grief stricken at the thought of having to leave Virginia and the old General, was threatening to "fight them all."
In February of 1884, while hurrying to board a moving train, John Bethune was accidentally caught beneath the wheels of the train and dragged to his death. A few months later, a reading of John's will revealed he had banned Eliza from receiving any inheritance claiming she was a "heartless adventuress who sought to absorb his estate." Management of Blind Tom reverted back to the old General. In retaliation, Eliza engineered an alliance with Tom's elderly mother Charity to gain custody of Tom. The custody case dragged through the courts for several years as Charity pursued legal remedies to have control of Tom's life placed in Eliza's hands.
In contrast to Mark Twain's description of Tom as an archangel cast from heaven is The New York Times characterization of the old General as Satan incarnate. In a July 1887 news report The New York Times recorded his appearance in court:
"He is a remarkably well preserved old man with long white hair and beard. He refused a fan offered him as well as a glass of water, and for his comfort pulled out an old-time looking pipe, which he filled with plug tobacco, lit and puffed away as if the thermometer was in the forties instead of the nineties."
After John Bethune died in a railway accident in 1884, Tom was returned—over Eliza's objections—to the care of General Bethune (now living in Virginia). Eliza sued General Bethune for ownership, with Tom's elderly mother Charity enjoined by Eliza's attorney as a party in the plaintiff's suit. After a protracted custody battle in several courts, in August 1887 Tom was awarded to Eliza, who moved Tom back to New York. Charity accompanied them with the understanding that she would benefit financially from Tom's earnings. However, after it became apparent that Eliza did not intend to honor any financial obligations to Charity, Tom's mother returned to Georgia.
A three year court battle between him and Eliza Bethune, (who had divorced John Bethune before the accident) for Tom ended July 31, 1887, when the court granted custody to the widow. The custody battle began on July 9, 1885, when Tom's mother, Charity Wiggins, filed a petition in theUnited States Circuit Court, Alexandria, Virginia, for the return of her son.
Charity Wiggins did not deny that she and Tom's father (the late Mingo Wiggins) had agreed "with Bethune that he should have Tom for five years, at the end of which he would attain his majority." Her concern was that "without
their consent and without giving them notice they had Tom adjudged to be a lunatic, with the General's son appointed
as the committe of his person, then put him on exhibition as a pianist." Her suit was therefore against General Bethune for the "services of her son and an accounting of the profits of the exhibitions since 1865."
Professor Southall writes that James N. Bethune finally lost custody of Thomas Wiggins to Eliza Bethune, as requested by Charity Wiggins:
On July 31, 1887, the New York Times reported that Judge Bond passed an order the previous day in Baltimore which "took Blind Tom out of General Bethune's custody."
It was reported that:
"James N. Bethune, who has kept Blind Tom in his possession since the days of slavery, should deliver him to the United States marshal on August 16 at Alexandria, Va., and that the marshal shall deliver him safely into the hands of Eliza Bethune, who was appointed Tom's Committee by the Supreme Court of New York, and also that General Bethune pay over $7,000 to the order of Court for the credit of Blind Tom as his earnings.
The New York Times reported on August 18, 1887 that Tom had arrived in New York and was again living at 7 St. Mark's Place, where he had lived for seven years with John G. Bethune. The change in custody appeared to be a smooth one, because Wiggins opened an engagement at Association Hall in New York City on September 26, 1887. Southall reports that by the following year Wiggins was again composing music for publication as well:
Mrs. Bethune was also getting some monetary rewards from Tom's creative talents given the 1888 copyright dates on three works published by the Oliver Ditson Music Company, namely: his Columbus March, Blind Tom's Mazurka and When This Cruel War is Over.