Nobody thought he would be worth anything as a slave.
Born on May 25, 1849, it was apparent from the beginning that Thomas was blind. His parents, Domingo Wiggins and Charity Greene, and his two brothers were purchased by James Bethune, a Georgia landowner, when Tom was an infant. Since he would never be more than a burden, their blind son was added to his parents' bill of sale at no extra cost. Following the custom of the time, Tom and his parents took their master's surname and he would be known as Thomas Greene Bethune for much of his life.
Since Tom was considered an idiot as well as blind (idiot being a legitimate medical term then) with nobody else to care for him, Charity had to bring him with her to the big house while she worked as a maid for the Bethune family. All the Bethune children were musically inclined and Tom spent his early childhood listening to them learning to sing and play piano. He quickly astonished them with his amazing talent at echolalia as well as imitating animal and bird calls. By the time he was four years old, he was sitting at a keyboard and able to reproduce any complex piece of music after only hearing it briefly.
The Bethunes treated Tom like the family pet and allowed him to sit in on the music lessons. They also began teaching him language for the first time in his life (a blind slave hadn't been considered worth educating before then). By the age of six, he began creating his own musical compositions based on sounds that he heard around him. James Bethune began arranging music lessons for the young prodigy (even though he initially thought that Tom had no more intelligence than "the family dog"). These music teachers marveled at Tom's ability and commented that he picked up skills in hours that took most pianists years to learn.
Tom's master, realizing that the young slave could be a moneymaker, rented a concert hall in 1857 and "Blind Tom Bethune" made his first appearance on stage. He quickly became a popular draw for audiences who couldn't comprehend how a blind, mentally deficient slave could be an expert pianist. A concert promoter, Perry Oliver, persuaded Bethune to "hire out" Tom to him in 1858. Tom was separated from his family for the first time in his life and sent on the road. For the next few years, Tom had a gruelling schedule with four performances a day and little chance for rest.
Blind Tom was a sensation. Not only could he play complex pieces perfectly, he astonished his audience by sitting backwards at the piano and doing the same playing with his hands reversed. He traveled across the country and even gave a command performance for President James Buchanan. Newspapers raved over "Blind Tom Bethune: The Eighth Wonder of the World" and the concert halls where he played were typically packed. By 1860, many of his compositions had been published to critical acclaim. Perry Oliver and James Bethune made a fortune from Tom's playing (very little of which went to Tom or his parents).
And then the Civil War broke out...
Tom and Perry Oliver were in New York City when Georgia seceded from the Union in 1861. After they returned to Georgia, Tom spent the rest of the war playing concerts to raise money for the Confederate cause. Many of these concerts included music that Tom had written himself and news about his playing still trickled back to Northern states. While the end of the war meant the end of Tom's slave status, James Bethune had foreseen the South's loss and made arrangements to retain control. He had Tom's parents sign an indenturing agreement ensuring that he would act as Tom's manager until his twenty-first birthday. The money that the parents received represented only a fraction of Tom's true earnings.
The touring continued to rave reviews across the country. Mark Twain marveled over Tom's ability and wrote extensively about him in newspaper articles. In one article, Twain commented that "some
archangel, cast out of upper Heaven like another Satan, inhabits this coarse
casket; and he comforts himself and makes his prison beautiful with thoughts
and dreams and memories of another time... It is not Blind Tom that does these
wonderful things and plays this wonderful music--it is the other party." A lawsuit brought against James Bethune over Tom's services dragged on for years and provided even more publicity.
Audiences could never get enough of Tom's musical genius. On a European tour (in between command performances for various royal families), eminent musicians tested Tom's ability to reproduce even extremely discordant piano pieces and found that he could reproduce them all with virtually no error. His repertoire would eventually expand to more than seven thousand pieces. In addition to the piano, Tom became proficient with other instruments as well as singing.
Contemporary descriptions of Tom's performances tended to play up his idiotic nature including descriptions of his rocking behaviour, grimaces, and strange finger movements while on stage. How much of that was encouraged by his handlers to make his performances more theatrical is anybody's guess but it worked against Tom eventually.
Once Tom turned twenty-one and Bethune's agreement with the parents came to an end, there was another legal trick his manager was able to play. James Bethune applied to the courts to have Tom declared legally insane and to have himself become his legal guardian. Despite contradictory evidence at the first custody hearing in 1870, the court ruled that Tom was incompetent and James Bethune continued to control Tom's career. After a few years on the road, John Bethune, James' son, eventually took over as Tom's manager.
Tom spent his summers living at the Bethune estate near Warrenton, Virginia in between concert seasons. He had his own room and piano where he could play and write music. Otherwise, he and John lived in New York City where Tom continued his music education when he wasn't on the road. He seemed happy enough despite his exhausting concert schedule but John often had to deal with Tom's frequent temper tantrums. John Bethune's accidental death in 1884 sparked a crisis when his ex-wife Eliza, aided by Tom's mother, went to court to take custody away from James Bethune.