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The Remarkable Case of the Late "Blind Tom."

How an Imbecile Blind Negro Pianist Amazed Scientists and Musicians the World Over. 

[Editor’s Note.—Blind Tom, the marvel of his day, died in Hoboken on June 13th. Since his case will doubtless be referred to by psychologists and musicians for many years to come, we present the following facts, which are taken in part from the Philadelphia North American. Blind Tom had many imitators, but there can be no doubt that the man who died recently was the real “Blind Tom.” The fact that he was a negro and was also blind added picturesqueness to his career, but the main point of scientific interest was that he was unquestionably an imbecile who possessed the most remarkable memory of its kind on record.]

Without belittling his astonishing achievements, it is evident that the power to mimic which is possessed by monkeys and some birds to an unusual degree does not indicate general intelligence. The Editor witnessed a performance given by a world-famous German pianist, who, notwithstanding the fact that he was in a state of bestial intoxication at the time, was able to play with great accuracy some of the most difficult compositions ever written. The reproduction of musical compositions is therefore due to something quite different from high conscious intelligence. It would seem that this was a gift that few people possess. Some scientists explain it as a reflex action: That is, the fingers that have traveled so many times over the same pianistic pathways at last become automatic and do their work apparently without conscious thought.

There is another valuable lesson from “Blind Tom’s” life that teachers should appreciate. The teacher who encourages the pupil to imitate rather than to resort to original thinking is not developing the child’s higher musical intelligence. Blind Tom could memorize music at a rate that would baffle the ordinary musician. Moreover, his powers of retention were so great that anything he once learned he rarely forgot. After all, he was nothing but a human phonograph, a freak of nature, quite as wonderful as the Natural Bridge, the Mammoth Cave or the Grand Canyon.]

He was Blind Tom to nearly all the world. But few knew that he derived from his mother the name of Thomas Wiggins. It is said that when the late General Bethune, of Columbus, Ga., bought his mother in the slave mart of his town, Blind Tom was a little blind pickaninny hugged close to the breast that had nurtured twenty other offspring. The small bundle of black pulp was blind and frail, and the auctioneer, in offering the mother for sale, stated that the pickaninny would be “thrown in.” He was then regarded as valueless even as a human chattel.

How His Talent Was Discovered.

General Bethune had a large house and several daughters who were very musical. Whenever they began to play upon the  piano the little blind black boy would feel his way to the veranda of the house and hide under some rosebushes. It was noticed that he became greatly excited when he heard the music, and he emitted a peculiar hissing sound that, through all his life, was his manner of expressing delight.

When he was 4 years old, the same age at which the infant Mozart was discovered at the piano during the night, little Tom was heard one day at the piano, picking out with his chubby fingers the notes of the melodies he had heard played on the piano.

General Bethune soon recognized the talent of the child, and gave instructions to the household that the black boy should be permitted to play on the piano all he liked. From that time he spent all his waking hours at the instrument. His marvelous powers of mimicry enabled him to repeat on the piano anything he heard played that was within the reach of his fingers.

By the time he was 8 years old he had grown so large that his hand would span an. octave on the keyboard, and then, at the request of friends, General Bethune began to take him away from home to play the piano for the entertainment of parties. This practice was followed by concert tours through the South.

A Wonderful Mimic.

Tom’s marvelous genius for mimicry was by no means confined to the piano, but took in almost everything within the range of sound. In addition to the instinct that enabled him to strike the right keys with his fingers and to reproduce anything he heard played upon the piano, he was endowed with a remarkable throat that enabled him to imitate the singing of men and women. His voice was naturally a guttural bass, and his favorite song was “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep,” which he frequently sang to his own accompaniment. And yet he could imitate, somewhat crudely, a soprano, and his tenor was surprisingly good.

No Musical Knowledge.

He had absolutely no ideas whatever about music as a mathematical science. He did not know that one note has always an exact and unchangeable relative value to all other notes, and that all combinations of tones or half tones may be computed mathematically. With him music was not science; it was nature. Henry Watterson tells of a meeting with Blind Tom at Washington in 1860. The negro had been brought as far north as Louisville by General Bethune, and William Henry Palmer, who was known to the public as Robert Heller, the magician, heard him and induced his master to take him to the national capital. Tom heard some of the great statesmen of the period speak and ever afterward he was able to repeat their speeches with the exact language, intonation and peculiarities of speech of the originals. But he never had the slightest idea what any of the words that he repeated meant. He was simply a human phonograph, and as such was undoubtedly the most wonderful human instrument the world has known.

How He Secured His Repertoire.

Palmer was a fine pianist, and he took such an interest in the musical slave that he taught him a great many compositions. That is, he played them over for Tom, who would repeat them. If the imitation was faulty Palmer would play it again, and Tom would repeat it as he heard it the last time.

Thalberg’s variations of “Home, Sweet Home,” several of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” and several of Liszt’s rhapsodies and transcriptions were learned by Blind Tom from Palmer in this way. It was somewhat peculiar that he never seemed to have any desire to learn anything new, but was entirely satisfied to play what he did know. It was only after he had been taken to Europe where he played during the greater part of the period covered by the Civil War that he added greatly to his repertory. Over there musicians, many of the most distinguished in the world, would play for him their most difficult and technically intricate compositions just to hear him repeat them.

This he could do with the most amazing fidelity. Naturally his manual dexterity increased with his continual playing, although he was marvelously great from the first. So it was that when he returned from Europe and began to tour the northern cities after the war his powers had greatly increased.

When he began to play again he would give his wonderful and familiar feat of turning his back to the piano, and, with his hands behind him, placing “The Fisher’s Hornpipe” with one hand, and “Yankee Doodle” with the other, and at the same time singing

“Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching.” This he would do so that there was a perfectly harmonious conjunction of all three melodies—something that many eminent composers could not write, to say nothing of executing it.

He never lost his restlessness. When not at the piano he never kept still for a minute. He seemed to take no interest in anything going on around him. He did, however, seem to have a little higher degree of intelligence than at first. He retained to the last his habit of leading the applause with which he was greeted. He would stand at the corner of the piano and face the audience with his white, sightless eyes, and while clapping his hands vigorously would hiss in his own strange  manner to express his gratification.

Henry Watterson’s Tribute.

Henry Watterson recently said: “The tidings of his death have reached at least one heart that loved and pitied him. I was his oldest living friend. All the others are dead.” Speaking of his genius as a musician, Mr. Watterson said:

“What was it? Memory? Yes, it was memory without doubt, but what else? Whence the hand power that enabled him to manipulate the keys, the vocal power that enabled him to imitate the voice?

“What was he? Whence came he? Was he the Prince of the fairy tale held by the wicked Enchantress; nor any beauty—not even the Heaven-born Maid of Melody—to release him? Blind, deformed and black—as black even as Erebus—idiocy, the idiocy of mysterious, perpetual frenzy, the sole companion of his waking visions and his dreams—whence came he, what was he, and wherefore?”


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