As often happens, this blog post was inspired by one of our friends who asked a simple question: “What was Brown’s Opera House”? As usual, some pictures can be viewed at full size by clicking on them.

“The Battle of Manassas” by Thomas Green Wiggins, written by him at age 12 after hearing adults discuss the battle for a week or so within days after it happened.

Shortly after dinner on Friday, March 25, 1881, hundreds of adults in the town of Winston, NC washed up, put on their best clothes and headed down to the courthouse square. There they found a long line waiting on the sidewalk next to Brown’s Opera House. Inside, the 25 “colored gallery”, which had no seats, was already packed. The 50 general admission seats were dwindling fast. Only those who had paid 75 for reserved seats could afford to arrive late. Well before the performance began, the hall was full to overflowing. One local newspaper estimated the crowd at over 600.

Brown'sOperaHouse

Brown’s Opera House occupied the entire upper story of the building that housed Brown Rogers & Co at the northwest corner of Fourth and Main Streets in Winston, NC. Built in the 1870s, the building burned in the early 20th century, but not before showcasing practically every famous opera and popular singer, touring Classical, Shakespearian and contemporary dramas, hundreds of local productions and every lecturer worth hearing in the USA.

At precisely 8 o’clock, the best known musician in the United States strode onto the stage and sat down at the piano. As always, there was some clowning around, which drew appreciative laughter. But when the piano player put his pudgy hands on the keyboard, the crowd became silent, leaning forward in anticipation. And the piano player did not disappoint. He performed a series of imitations of other musical instruments, including a banjo, bagpipes, drums and a pipe organ. His rendition of the popular song “Mocking Bird” was “…something grand”. And the finale, in which he played “Yankee Doodle” with his left hand, and “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with his right, while singing “Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching…” “…brought down the house with tremendous applause.”

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Winston Leader, March 29, 1881

Thomas Greene Wiggins was born on May 25, 1849 to slave parents Charity and Domingo “Mingo” Wiggins at the Wiley Jones plantation in Harris County, Georgia. Within a year, Jones had sold Tom and his parents to “General” James Neil Bethune, a Columbus lawyer and newspaper publisher. Blind at birth, Tom was unable to perform the work normally assigned to slave children, so was given free run of the plantation. Early on, people noticed that he was fascinated by sounds of any kind and could replicate with his voice any sound that he had heard just once…from babies crying to the sounds of birds, farm animals and machines.

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The story is told that one night as the Bethune family sat down to dinner, someone began playing the piano in the parlor. Since everyone who could play the piano was in the dining room, they went to investigate. And there sat four-year-old Tom, playing a piece that he had heard one of the Bethune daughters play.

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“General” Bethune wasted no time cashing in on his little prodigy. By the mid-1850s, Tom, now billed as “Blind Tom”, was touring the South. In 1860, Tom became the first black person to give a command performance at the White House, entertaining President James Buchanan and guests. In 1866, the “General” took Tom on a tour of Europe, where he was an instant success. Mark Twain attended and wrote about a number of Tom’s performances. From his first encounter in 1869: “He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis.”

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To prove that Tom could play any piece having heard it only once, the “General” began inviting local composers onto the stage to play their own compositions, after which Tom would replicate the piece note for note. But he would often add a few bars of his own, so soon was composing his own works, many of which were published as sheet music. In this endeavor, he was assisted by a professional composer, Joseph Poznanski, who transposed what Tom played into musical notation, often with copious annotations. In 1886, Poznanski told the Washington Post how some of their sessions worked: “We had two pianos in one room. I would play for him and he would get up, walk around, stand on one foot, pull his hair, knock his head against the wall, then sit down and play a very good imitiation of what I had played with additions to it. His memory was something prodigious. He never forgot anything.”

SewingSong

Tom was what would later become known as an “idiot-savant”, which we know today has something to do with autism. He could not read or write and most of his mental functions never exceeded those of a child, so he was a ward of the Bethune family. When his manager, the “General’s” son John Bethune, died in a railway accident in 1884, the Washington “Post” investigated his situation and estimated that the Bethunes had received over $40,000 for his performances, of which Tom had gotten not a penny. In fact, they reported that his mother was living in a hovel in rural Georgia.

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A tremendous legal battle for custody ensued. John Bethune’s ex-wife Eliza Stutzbach Bethune enlisted Charity Wiggins to her cause with promises of riches and won custody. As soon as the case was finished, she dropped Charity, who returned, still poor, to Georgia. In the past, the General or his son had always introduced Tom at the beginning of each performance. Now under Eliza’s management, Tom began doing his own introductions, but they were word-for-word, including exact intonations, of the Bethune’s previous introductions, in which Tom referred to himself as “Blind Tom”.

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It is said that Tom learned over 7,000 pieces of piano music, including classical and popular works, many waltzes, marches and hymns. The only thing that he refused to play was what he called “Sunday school music”. And he could sing most songs that he had heard, imitating the voice and intonations of whoever he had heard sing them.

In 1904, Tom suffered a stroke which ended his public performing career. But he continued to play the piano, living with Eliza in Hoboken, New Jersey until he died of a second stroke on April 11, 1908. He was buried at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.

Historians who studied Tom’s life eventually estimated that Tom earned about $750,000 between the mid-1850s and 1904. That would be a bit over $20 million in today’s dollars.

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Winston Leader, February, 1884

Known Twin City appearances by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (aka Thomas Greene Bethune or Thomas Wiggins Bethune):

Friday, March 25, 1881 – Brown’s Opera House, nw corner Fourth & Main

Saturday, February 16, 1884 – Brown’s Opera House

Tuesday, September 1, 1891 – Brown’s Opera House

Wednesday, June 26, 1901 – Forsyth Riflemen’s Armory, ne corner Main & Fourth

Armory

The armory of the Forsyth Riflemen occupied the second level of the building behind the Winston Town Hall, on Fourth Street between Main and Church.

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