When Missouri teenager Helen Viola Jackson agreed to marry her much-older neighbor, 93-year-old James Bolin, in September 1936, she did so on her own terms. As Jackson, who died on December 16 at age 101, later pointed out, she kept her last name, continued to live on her family’s farm and shared few details of the nuptials outside of her immediate circle.
The union wasn’t exactly a love match, though Jackson did say she had “great respect” for her husband, who “really cared for me [and] wanted me to have a future.” According to a statement from the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival, which Jackson helped launch in the mid 2000s, the then-17-year-old’s father had volunteered his daughter’s help with Bolin’s household chores. Unwilling to accept charity, Bolin, a widower who’d served in the U.S. Army’s 14th Missouri Cavalry, proposed a marriage of convenience with an unexpected result: At the time of his bride’s death last month, she was the last documented surviving widow of a Civil War veteran.
“He said that he would leave me his Union pension,” Jackson recalled in an interview with historian Hamilton C. Clark, per the festival’s statement. “It was during the [Great] Depression and times were hard. He said that it might be my only way of leaving the farm.”
Following her husband’s death in June 1939, Jackson kept their marriage a secret for decades. She never remarried or had children and, in an ironic twist of fate, declined to apply for the pension that had precipitated the marriage in the first place.
Speaking with Clark, Jackson said that one of Bolin’s daughters threatened to ruin her reputation if she went through with the pension application.
“All a woman had in 1939 was her reputation,” she explained. “I didn’t want them all to think that I was a young woman who had married an old man to take advantage of him.”
Jackson, who was an active member of her local historical society, the state cherry blossom festival planning committee and a gardening club, among other organizations, only revealed her marriage in 2017, when she began planning the details of her funeral, according to Our America magazine. The Daughters of Union Veterans subsequently verified the relationship through a signed affidavit from a witness who’d attended the wedding. Bolin, a Missouri farmer who’d enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 18, according to records posted on Twitter by historian Adam H. Domby, also recorded the ceremony in his personal Bible, which now features in a traveling exhibition on Jackson.
Prior to Jackson’s disclosure, Maudie White Hopkins, who wed Confederate veteran William M. Cantrell in 1934, when she was 19 and he was 86, was thought to be the last confirmed Civil War widow. As Peggy Harris reported for the Associated Press following Hopkins’ death in 2008 at age 93, other Confederate widows were alive at the time but did not want to be publicly named.
This week, in the aftermath of far-right extremists’ storming of the United States Capitol, some with Confederate flags in hand, Jackson’s passing underscores just how recent the Civil War and other seemingly distant events really were. It’s a reminder in line with the deaths last year of Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., grandson of tenth president John Tyler, who left office in 1845, and Irene Triplett, the last person to receive a Civil War pension. Her father, Mose, had served as a private in the Confederate Army before deserting and shifting his allegiances to the United States.
“Just like the Confederate monuments issue, which is blowing up right now, I think [Triplett’s death] is a reminder of the long reach of slavery, secession and the Civil War,” Stephanie McCurry, a historian at Columbia University, told the Washington Post’s Ian Shapira last June. “It reminds you of the battle over slavery and its legitimacy in the United States.”