Blind Tom Wiggins dies
Tom died at age fifty-nine on June 13, 1908 at Eliza's home in Hoboken.
A few days later The New York Times headline read "BLIND TOM, PIANIST, DIES OF A STROKE -- A CHILD ALL HIS LIFE." Newspaper coverage reported that Eliza laid Tom to rest in Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
Noted Kentucky newspaper editor Henry Watterson wrote one of the most touching tributes to Tom after the wires spread the news of his demise. "What was he? Whence came he, and wherefore? That there was a soul there, be sure, imprisoned, chained in that little black bosom, released at last."
DISPUTE OVER BLIND TOM.
Several Persons at Funeral Deny That Body Was That of Musician.
Thomas Wiggins, who loved most of all the swish of tree boughs and leaves in the wind and the howl of the blast under the eaves and the patter of rain against shingle or window pane, was buried yesterday.
At the chapel of the Frank Campbell Undertaking Company in West Twenty-third Street a small group of mourners gathered to see the body of "Blind Tom" sent away for burial. The stained-glass windows over the chapel were beaten by the branches of several trees in the rear of the building, for the wind was high at 2 o'clock, the clouds overcast and the rain falling in sheets. Between the wheezing notes of a time-worn melodeon the music of the elements sounded in the ears of the little company gathered to pay a last tribute to the negro musician. His own funeral march, composed for his obsequies, was not played. The young woman at the melodeon, when asked about this neglect, asked in turn:
"Did he compose a funeral march?"
Mrs. Albert J. Lerche of Hoboken, the legal guardian for "Blind Tom," her daughter and a few children were the only ones to accompany the body to Evergreen Cemetery. The little group of mourners who had come through the storm to be present at the funeral were about evenly divided between whites and blacks.
There was one old "auntie" from Maryland who had heard Tom play three times. There was an actor, who said that his career went back into civil war times. He had heard Blind Tom often on his tours through the country. There was also another of his profession, a woman. After a close scrutiny of the dead she said:
"That is not the famous Blind Tom. I know that negro, for when I was hard up not many years ago I did a turn with him in several Hoboken music halls. He was blind, was led to and fro by a white boy, and was highly intelligent, which the original Blind Tom was not, and he and I have talked about the real Blind Tom. I am positive that the body in that coffin is not that of the real Blind Tom."
The woman refused to give her name. The old actor also said he couldn't believe that the Blind Tom in the coffin was the same Blind Tom he had heard play thirty-five years ago.
The mourners discussed these statements, and half of them departed protesting that the body on the way to Evergreen was that of Tom, the original, and the other half declaring that it was the body of the imitation Tom of the Hoboken music halls.
There were those in the little funeral gathering, among them a TIMES reporter, who knew the original Blind Tom, who looked at the body in the coffin and recognized it as that of the strange, black man whose music delighted several generations.
He died on June 13, 1908. The author gives the cause of death and the funeral arrangements:
Although he died at age 59 of cerebral apoplexy at the home of Mrs. Eliza Bethune Lerche in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lived for several years, his body was taken to the funeral chapel of Frank E. Campbell Company in New York.
Lengthy obituaries appeared in newspapers around the country, but it was generally left to Black newspapers to point out that Thomas Wiggins, this marvelously gifted pianist and composer, was exploited all his life. They lamented that first slave owners and then managers reaped riches from Tom's talents while Tom lived and died penniless, and while his mother and siblings lived in poverty.