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Civil War Widow Kept Her Secret for Decades

As a teenager, Helen Viola Jackson married a 93-year-old veteran
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 7, 2021 5:55 PM CST
Updated Jan 8, 2021 12:30 AM CST

(Newser) – Helen Viola Jackson's 1936 marriage to James Bolin was unusual, to say the least: He was 93 and in declining health, and she was a 17-year-old schoolgirl. Bolin was also a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union in the border state of Missouri. Jackson was almost certainly the last remaining widow of a Civil War soldier when she died Dec. 16 at a nursing home in Marshfield, Missouri. She was 101. Several Civil War heritage organizations have recognized Jackson's quiet role in history, one that she hid for all but the final three years of her life, said Nicholas Inman, her pastor. Yet in those final years, Inman said, Jackson embraced the recognition that included a spot on the Missouri Walk of Fame and countless cards and letters from well-wishers. "It was sort of a healing process for Helen: that something she thought would be kind of a scarlet letter would be celebrated in her later years," Inman said.

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Jackson grew up in the tiny town of Niangua. Bolin, a widower who had been a private in the 14th Missouri Cavalry seven decades earlier, lived nearby. Jackson's father volunteered his teenage daughter to stop by Bolin's home each day to provide care and help with chores. To repay her kindness, Bolin offered to marry Jackson, which would allow her to receive his soldier's pension after his death, a compelling offer during the Great Depression. Jackson agreed largely because "she felt her daily care was prolonging his life," Inman said. They wed on Sept. 4, 1936, at his home. During three years of marriage, there was no intimacy, and she never lived with him. She never remarried. After Bolin's death in 1939, she did not seek his pension. She realized the stigma of a teenager marrying a man in his 90s. In a 2018 oral history, Jackson said she never told her parents or anyone else about the wedding to protect their reputations. "I had great respect for Mr. Bolin, and I did not want him to be hurt by the scorn of wagging tongues," she said. After Bolin's relatives found out, they presented her with a framed photo of him. "She broke down and cried,” Inman recalled. "She kept touching the frame and said, 'This is the only man who ever loved me.'"

(Read more Civil War stories.)

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