Last Civil War widow dies after keeping marriage secret most of her life

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In today’s world of smartphones and domestic strife, Helen Jackson was a woman of a different time whose story dates back to America’s Civil War.

She passed away last month at age 101. As remarkable as that is, it’s a story that Helen kept secret most of her adult life that gives her a place in history. 

Helen Jackson was, by most every account, the last surviving widow of the Civil War.

She was just 19 in 1936, when she married 91-year-old Civil War veteran James Bolin after volunteering as his caretaker in his final years.

“He asked her to marry him and basically explained that if they were to marry, that when he passed away, that she would be able to draw his pension,” historian Jill Phillips said.

Helen said “yes” and the two married at Bolin’s house. He lived there and Helen continued to live at her parents’ house.

James Bolin died three years later, after which his daughter — who was much older than Helen — learned of the marriage.

“His daughter confronted her after he passed away and threatened her that if you go after… his pension, I will ruin you,” her friend Ruthie Letterman said.

After becoming a widow in her early 20s, Helen Jackson never remarried and decided not to collect that pension, while also not telling a soul. 

Neither her family nor her friends knew a thing until she confided in her friend and pastor Nicholas Inman just four years ago.

“She actually told Nicholas all of this, when they were planning her funeral; and they also had the family Bible that everything was written in, so that’s the actual record of their marriage,” Phillips said.

Seeing the historic significance, Nicholas Inman and others went to work to get Helen recognition. They even found the sole living witness, Dr. Tommy McDonald, who was just a boy at the time.

“Dr. Tommy was squirrel hunting and said they made him come in and be a witness and he remembered ‘oh yeah, I remember Helen getting married and I remember my dad telling me not to say anything,’” Phillips said.

Inside the Webster County, MO historical society today, you will find a memorial dedicated to Helen and her story.

She was the last Civil War widow, who, with her death, closed another chapter in the American story.

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