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The New York Times Obituaries for "Blind Tom"

The New York Times reported two stories regarding Tom's death. The first contained known factual errors which have been correct in red.

June 15, 1908

Old Negro with Strange Mastery of Music Ends His Days in Hoboken.
Cared for in His Declining Years by the Daughter
[Daughter-in-Law] 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 [daughter-in-law] 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.

June 16, 1908

Several Persons at Funeral Deny That Body Was That of Musician.

Thomas Wiggins, who loved most of all the swish of tree boughs and leaves in the wind and the howl of the blast under the eaves and the patter of rain against shingle or window pane, was buried yesterday.

At the chapel of the Frank Campbell Undertaking Company in West Twenty-third Street a small group of mourners gathered to see the body of "Blind Tom" sent away for burial. The stained-glass windows over the chapel were beaten by the branches of several trees in the rear of the building, for the wind was high at 2 o'clock, the clouds overcast and the rain falling in sheets. Between the wheezing notes of a time-worn melodeon the music of the elements sounded in the ears of the little company gathered to pay a last tribute to the negro musician. His own funeral march, composed for his obsequies, was not played. The young woman at the melodeon, when asked about this neglect, asked in turn:

"Did he compose a funeral march?"

Mrs. Albert J. Lerche of Hoboken, the legal guardian for "Blind Tom," her daughter and a few children were the only ones to accompany the body to Evergreen Cemetery. The little group of mourners who had come through the storm to be present at the funeral were about evenly divided between whites and blacks.

There was one old "auntie" from Maryland who had heard Tom play three times. There was an actor, who said that his career went back into civil war times. He had heard Blind Tom often on his tours through the country. There was also another of his profession, a woman. After a close scrutiny of the dead she said:

"That is not the famous Blind Tom. I know that negro, for when I was hard up not many years ago I did a turn with him in several Hoboken music halls. He was blind, was led to and fro by a white boy, and was highly intelligent, which the original Blind Tom was not, and he and I have talked about the real Blind Tom. I am positive that the body in that coffin is not that of the real Blind Tom."

The woman refused to give her name. The old actor also said he couldn't believe that the Blind Tom in the coffin was the same Blind Tom he had heard play thirty-five years ago.

The mourners discussed these statements, and half of them departed protesting that the body on the way to Evergreen was that of Tom, the original, and the other half declaring that it was the body of the imitation Tom of the Hoboken music halls.

There were those in the little funeral gathering, among them a TIMES reporter, who knew the original Blind Tom, who looked at the body in the coffin and recognized it as that of the strange, black man whose music delighted several generations.

For more photos and the biography of Blind Tom -- see ARCHANGELS UNAWARE.

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