The New York Times reports on Blind Tom Wiggins' Death
BLIND TOM, PIANIST, DIES OF A STROKE Old Negro with Strange Mastery of Music Ends His Days in Hoboken.
A CHILD ALL HIS LIFE
Cared for in His Declining Years by the Daughter of His Old Master.
Thomas Wiggins, the "Blind Tom" whose strange mastery of the piano without teaching or scientific knowledge of the instrument made thousands wonder, died on Saturday at the home of a daughter of his old master and one-time owner, Col. James N. Bethune of Georgia.
Mrs. Albert J. Lerche, who was Miss [Mrs.] Eliza Bethune before her marriage, had cared for the old blind negro musician for many years past, keeping him happy and comfortable in her home, at 60 Twelfth Street, Hoboken. It was there that he died suddenly of apoplexy.
"Blind Tom" was twice erroneously reported dead, one in 1903, and prior to that a body was identified as his after the Johnstown flood, was buried as his, and a tombstone put over it, marked with his name.
This time the famous old musician is really dead. His body lies in the Frank Campbell Company's funeral chapel, at 241 West Twenty-third Street, and today after the last services "Blind Tom's" funeral march, composed by himself and in a way said to be typical of his own life, will be played on the chapel organ.
In this composition, which many musicians have declared to be of uncommon merit, a passage of great sonority is immediately followed by a passage of such lightness and gayety that the effect produced is one of pathos. The negro, weak-minded all through his life, was as much of a child in middle age as at 7, and his pleasures were those of a child.
He applauded himself after the performance of every number, laughed lightly and with little provocation, and always needed a guardian. The sadness of a blind life and the gayety of a child's nature are shown in the funeral march which was played publicly at the funeral of his old master a number of years ago.
The fear of death was strong in Blind Tom in his later years. If he felt the wind blowing against him he would exclaim: "Tom's in a draught. He may catch cold and die. Wouldn't that be terrible!" But he was spared the agony of the fear of surely approaching death, the stroke of apoplexy striking him unconscious, and the end following in a very short time.
When Col. Bethune bought Charity Wiggins she had in her arms a pickaninny, blind, feeble, and not considered valuable as a slave asset. So Tom was "thrown in" by his mother's former master. He was a very small boy when he discovered that for the loss of his sight and the blight upon his mind his Creator had endowed him with a gift so strange and yet so productive of happiness to him that he has, in a way, been a living subject for marvel during the last half century.
The boy began by repeating words that he heard about him, mimicking every one and trying to imitate all sounds that fell on his ear. When he first heard a piano played every note of the music was stamped in his mind, and, groping to the instrument, he found that he could reproduce the music he had heard.
With the instrument he could imitate the tinkling of water in a fountain, the fall of rain, and the noises of the storm. His own composition, which gave him the most delight, he called "What the Wind and the Waves Told Tom."
The fame of the blind negro boy spread quickly, and during the twenty years and more that he performed in public here and abroad he made a great deal of money. A son of his old master toured him until about fifteen years ago, when he retired and went to live in New Jersey. Mrs. Lerche was appointed his guardian twenty years ago, and has since looked after him. The old negro's last days were spent with his piano or playing in the Lerche home, frequently holding imaginary receptions.
Up to ten years ago the old mother of the freak pianist was still alive in Georgia, very aged. Tom was in his sixtieth year. In his reproductions of the performances of masterpieces on the piano he was said to play with a conception of music that was as great as his skill. His technique came as naturally as did his musical emotions.