Helen Viola Jackson’s marriage to James Bolin in 1936 was unusual, to say the least: he was 93 years old and his health was deteriorating, 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 on December 16 in a nursing home in Marshfield, Missouri. She was 101 years old.
Several civil war heritage organizations have recognized Jackson’s silent role in history, one that he concealed for the last three years of his life, said Nicholas Inman, his pastor and longtime friend. Yet in those later years, Inman said, Jackson accepted recognition that included a spot on the Missouri Walk of Fame and countless cards and letters from supporters.
“It was kind of a healing process for Helen – something that she thought would be a kind of scarlet letter would be celebrated in her later years,” Inman said.
Jackson grew up as one of 10 children in the small town of Niangua, in southwestern Missouri, near Marshfield. Bolin, a widower who had served as a private in the 14th Missouri Cavalry during the civil war seven decades earlier, lived nearby.
Jackson’s father offered his teenage daughter to stop by Bolin’s house every day to provide care and help with household chores. To return his kindness, Bolin offered to marry Jackson, which would allow him to receive his soldier’s pension after his death, a compelling offer in the context of the Great Depression.
Jackson agreed in large part because “he felt like his daily care was prolonging his life,” Inman said.
They were married on September 4, 1936, at their home. Throughout their three years of marriage there was no intimacy and she never lived with him. He never told his parents, siblings or anyone about the wedding. He never remarried, and spent decades “keeping this secret that he had to eat her alive,” Inman said.
After Bolin’s death in 1939, she did not apply for her pension.
She also realized the stigma and potential scandal of a teenage girl marrying a man in his 90s, regardless of their reason. In a 2018 oral history recording, Jackson said he never spoke of the wedding to protect Bolin’s reputation and his own.
“I had great respect for Mr. Bolin and did not want him to be hurt by the contempt of tongues wagging,” he said.
Inman and Jackson were friends for a long time. She was a founding member of the Methodist church where he serves as pastor. One day in December 2017, she told Inman about her secret marriage to a much older man. She mentioned in passing that she fought in the civil war.
“I said what? Back off on that. What do you mean he was in the civil war?” Inman said.
Inman reviewed her story and found that everything she told him was “accurate.”
Officials from Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield sent him copies of Bolin’s service information. She identified where he was buried, in Niangua.
She also kept a Bible that he gave her, in which he wrote about their marriage. Those written words were good enough for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and other heritage organizations to recognize Jackson’s place in history.
After a lifetime avoiding his past, Jackson embraced him in his later years, Inman said. She spoke with school children and had a Facebook page dedicated to her. He enjoyed receiving letters and cards.
She also found a new peace. A stoic nature that prevented her from shedding tears at the funerals of her own brothers seemed to evaporate.
After Bolin’s relatives found out about Jackson’s role in his life, they went to the nursing home and presented him with a framed photo of him.
“He broke down and cried,” Inman recalled. “She kept touching the frame and said, ‘This is the only man who has ever loved me.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism