Blind Tom at Legg Hall

Blind Tom Playing

Mark Twain saw him at every opportunity, some times going to his show two or three nights in a row. He was one of America’s most amazing pianists, an autistic savant who performed as Blind Tom.

On April 27, 1874, Blind Tom played at Legg Hall. General admission was 50 cents, but reserved seats could be had for 75 cents, with tickets picked up in advance at Henry Hollon’s drug store.

Born a slave in Georgia, Tom Wiggins was blind and hence had no discernible economic value. The plantation owner, James Neil Bethune, left Tom to play and wander. As he grew, Tom began to echo the sounds around him, the crow of a rooster or the singing of a bird. He would beat on pots and pans to make sounds of his own. By the age of four, Tom was repeating, verbatim, the conversations of others, but was barely able to communicate his own needs in words, instead using grunts and gestures.

Fatefully, Tom was intrigued by the piano after hearing Bethune’s daughters play. As one writer of the day noted, “The first touch of a piano acted like a charm on this child.” In time, Tom was able to play all that he heard without missing a note. Bethune was fascinated by the boy’s talent and moved him into the family’s house, in an room with a piano, where Tom played for hours each day. Bethune hired professional musicians to play for Tom, and in this way the boy learned 7,000 popular songs, waltzes, hymns and classical pieces.

When Tom was eight, Bethune hired him out to promoter Perry Oliver, who toured him throughout the country, earning Bethune and Oliver up to $100,000 a year. In 1860, Blind Tom performed for President James Buchanan; he was the first African-American to give a command performance at the White House.

Tom usually introduced himself onstage in the third person, imitating the speeches of his managers from years past. Willa Cather described one such concert:

“It was a strange sight to see him walk out on stage with his own lips—another man’s words—introduce himself and talk quietly about his own idiocy. There was insanity, a grotesque horribleness about it that was interestingly unpleasant. One laughs at the man’s queer actions, and yet, after all, the sight is not laughable. It brings us too near to the things that we sane people do not like to think of.”

In August of 1869, Mark Twain was traveling across the country on his own lecture tour and attended a performance by Blind Tom. Writing for San Francisco’s Alta California newspaper, he reported:

“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 so it must have been in Legg Hall on that evening in 1874.

Blind Tom Ad

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Sources:

The Skaneateles Democrat, April 1874

Quote by Willa Cather, Nebraska State Journal, May 18, 1895; it is believed that the character of Blind Samson d’Arnault in Cather’s My Antonia is based on Blind Tom.

Quote by Mark Twain, Alta California (newspaper, San Francisco), August 1, 1869

Thanks, of course, to the Fulton History Database and Google.

Melodie Monster

Calliope GOOD

On Friday, August 19, 1859, the village hosted the Sand’s, Nathan’s & Co. Circus with “multifarious attractions,” including “the renowned STEAM CALLIOPE, the most wonderful and magnificent musical instrument ever constructed.” And what was more, “This gorgeous melodie monster will precede the Cavalcade on its entrance into Town, drawn by A TEAM OF ELEPHANTS and perform a series of the most popular operatic airs.”

Spelling Counts

“A paper came through the Post-office here on Tuesday with the word Skaneateles spelt as follows: ‘Schenieatleus.’ We have seen Skaneateles spelt all sorts of ways, but none have quite equaled this.”

— “Where is the Schoolmaster?” in The Democrat, April 14, 1865

The Recurring In-law

Shuler Conover was a farmer. He raised corn to feed his pigs, was a good judge of horseflesh, and prospered, eventually becoming a “gentleman farmer” and leaving the work to others.

Shuler CU

Musical as well as agricultural, Conover was in the Skaneateles Band, led by Charles Krebs; Shuler played a drum and his brother Mortimer was in the brass section. During the Civil War, the lads accompanied the 149th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment to Washington, D.C., when it reported for duty.

Some time after 1862, Shuler bought Spencer Hannum’s house, just west of the National Hotel*, and moved from his farm to the village with his wife, Harriet, and their children: Frank, Jennie and Carrie.

From 1876 to 1879, Conover was the gatekeeper for Skaneateles Lake, regulating the flow of water from the lake into the outlet, assuring the Erie Canal and the downstream water-powered mills of an adequate supply while maintaining (and recording) the lake level. The State of New York paid him $12 a year and he had a short, beautiful walk to work. All in all, an idyllic existence, except for Eugene.

1883 Attorney

In 1882, Conover’s youngest daughter, Carrie, married Eugene Converse of Battle Creek, Michigan, where the couple first made their home. Eugene was an attorney, until he went off the rails.

First, he abandoned his wife and children in Battle Creek “after appropriating large sums from various parties.” Eugene Converse fled to Canada with $4,000 of other people’s money. Carrie Converse returned to Skaneateles with the children, Helen and Dean.

Next, nefarious but not bright, Eugene appeared in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and made a splash at the resort known as the “Saratoga of the West.” On October 18, 1887, posing as Eugene Charles Mason, he married Miss Jennie M. Jones. The newlyweds went to Chicago for their honeymoon, where police caught up to Eugene with an outstanding warrant. One account noted that at the moment of his arrest he was “in a barber’s chair, having his mustache shaved so that his identity might be concealed and he might escape to Canada.” Instead, he was returned to Battle Creek and brought before a judge, where bigamy was added to the charges of forgery and embezzlement.

As for Miss Jennie Jones, briefly “Mrs. Mason,” the newspaper reported, “The deluded Waukesha woman was taken home by her friends and is now almost heart-broken over her disgrace.”

In December, Converse was convicted and sentenced to five years at Michigan’s Jackson Prison. A newspaper in Charlotte, Michigan, described him as “the young and formerly popular attorney… who is now in prison for embezzlement, bigamy and several other malodorous crimes the exposure of which have lately given him an almost unprecedented reputation as a criminal.”

Jackson State

But he seemed undaunted. It was said that he “took his disgrace easily and seemed to think little of the feeling of the wives he had wronged.” A “keen, forcible writer,” he was nominated to head the prison’s weekly newspaper, and on Memorial Day 1888, he spoke on “Our National Day” in the prison chapel. After his release, he settled down to “an honest life” as a clerk in Jackson, Michigan. But he missed his (first) wife and began writing to her in a effort to prompt their reunion.

A newspaper account noted, “To be sure his explanation of his unwarranted action was scarcely plausible; he had, he said, been ruined by the forgery and hoped by marrying a rich girl, going with her to Europe and then deserting her, to get money enough to put him on his feet again.”

Well, that explained it. Converse then moved to Syracuse to plead his case personally, telling Carrie he loved her above all others. She yielded and married her husband for the second time in October of 1892.

Shuler Conover died in 1895 and Carrie came to Skaneateles to tidy up his estate. She sold the house at the corner of Hannum and West Genesee Streets to Norman O. Shepard in 1898, and her mother, Harriet, went to Syracuse to live with her granddaughter, Maud Conover Cory. Carrie Converse returned to Michigan, to Eugene and her two teenage children.

By his 1895 demise, Shuler Conover was spared the news when Eugene once again pulled up stakes. Citing “willful desertion,” Carrie Converse filed for divorce in Michigan in 1905. Uncontested by Eugene, the divorce was granted. In 1942, Carrie Converse died in Detroit, at the home of her daughter, Helen Converse; her marital status was politely noted as “widowed.” Her body was returned to Skaneateles, and buried with those of Shuler and Harriet Conover in the family plot at Lake View Cemetery.

Conover Grave Stone

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* As Isaac Sherwood’s original inn changed hands, it was Lamb’s Hotel, then the Houndayaga House, then the National Hotel. It was purchased by John Packwood in 1865, known for a time as Packwood’s National Hotel, then renamed The Packwood House, and is today’s Sherwood Inn. For a much longer chronology, click here.

Spencer Hannum’s house, built in 1854 and later the home of Shuler Conover, is today’s Hannum House.

The photo of the Skaneateles Band was taken by Jonathan Edwards.

My thanks to ancestry.com and the Fulton History database.

Concert, 1851

Covert

In August of 1851, Lamb’s Hotel (today’s Sherwood Inn) hosted a concert by singer and composer Bernard Covert, accompanied by Mr. Barton, pianist and vocalist. The newspaper reported, “They exhibit ample testimonials of their skill and success as musicians, and a rare and interesting entertainment may be anticipated.” Covert was eventually famous as the composer of “The Sword of Bunker Hill,” “Mary Darling, Mary Dear,” “Can I Go, Dearest Mother?” and many others, especially patriotic songs performed during and after the Civil War.