It is Christmas Eve in 1850 and the "Columbus Times & Sentential" publishes the announcement of the sale of a twenty-acre (8-hectare) manor house and estate just outside Columbus, Georgia, on the Alabama border.
The owner, Wiley F. Jones, covered in debt, adds that the auction house Harrison's is also selling "a dozen Negro slaves raised in Georgia" (translated: raised up properly) including a coachman and a good seamstress.
Without failing the clarification, widespread among the self-styled gentlemen of the South, that the sale will be "for families", so as not to separate fathers, mothers, children.
The family of Mingo and Charity Wiggins, in this respect, is fine. They are bought together, he, she and two "healthy" children by the landowner James Neil Bethune, a general with a beard and mustache, a theorist of slavery, editor of a newspaper hostile to emancipation. Indeed, the man accepts, as a gift, even the third child of the couple. His name is Thomas, he is eight months old and his eyes are white, empty, without light. In time it will be discovered that the disability is double: "His imbecility and helplessness ensured him the sympathy and care of the family in his childhood", says a promotional booklet (The Marvelous musical prodigy) of 1868, "When he began to walk and run for the courtyard, its amusing peculiarities made it a domestic animal ».
The little boy's initiation to the keyboard was born from a family challenge of Mary, one of the master's seven children («A horse or a dog can be taught almost anything. Tom has as much common sense as a horse or a dog, and I'll show you that it can be taught. "Tom, sit down! Tom, get up!").
At the age of five, the black boy, slave, blind and "idiot" left everyone mesmerized by placing himself at the piano while the owners ate dinner and playing what he had learned by listening to the music teacher. Not childish songs: classical music!
A prodigy. Never seen in history.
Bethune soon realizes he has bought a phenomenon. The legend says that, having smelled the deal, he left the child free access to the piano and looked for music teachers to give him a base. «Impossible - they answered -, he does everything himself».
The fact is that in '57, at the age of eight, he already made his debut at Columbus Temperance Hall. He started touring America immediately afterwards, following an impresario-custodian who will arrive to have him exhibited up to four times in a single day. More than a concert, it is a show on the model of the "Curiosity" that will make the fortune of unscrupulous men like Phineas T. Barnum, capable of dragging on stage Lilliputian dwarfs and cannon women and Siamese and disabled brothers with four legs like Myrtle Corbin ... A horrendous show (with today's eyes) and stratospheric at the same time. Blind Tom impeccably performed "classical" pieces, from Chopin to Mendelssohn, from Hoffman to Donizetti; he could also make perfect imitations of animal sounds and play any song upon request. Musicians in the hall throw hail of scattered notes asking the "monster" to repeat them, identifying them one by one, or to reproduce songs never heard before. He was infallible.
Mark Twain will write in the San Francisco newspaper Alta California that he went to hear him three nights in a row: "If ever there was an inspired idiot, this is him. He dominated the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm with his strong pieces; he rocked them to make them rest again with tender melodies like those we hear in dreams; cheered them with others waving in the enchanted air with the same joy and merriment of pandemonium that birds do in the woods of California ... And every time the audience cheered when a song was finished, this happy innocent joined and beat too his hands… ». Until the enthusiasm was such that "the hall came down".
In 1886, on a European concert-show tour, he left indelible impressions among British journalists and musicians.
Was he a genius? In his own way, surely.
Certainly few in the world were so exploited: in 1870, when he was assigned by the judge to its old owner, according to the newspapers of the time, he reached 100,000 dollars a year. Equal, according to official estimates, to nearly two million dollars today.
He became "the highest paid pianist of the nineteenth century" (The Ballade of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist, Deirdre O’Connell).
Few coins went to him and his mother Charity...