Bonnie Stevenson takes her gardening tools and scrub brushes through the Oil Springs Cemetery to patch of saplings and ivy. There, beneath the greenery with mosquitoes swirling around it is a simple gravestone; Christanne Ranger, 1856 to 1922.
The discovery of the stone has thrilled the local author and surprised many who weren’t aware Oil Springs infamous madam of the oil fields is buried in the local graveyard.
Stevenson has written two books about Bootjack Mary – a character based on the real-life woman who was a prostitute during the boom years in Oil Springs. She got her nickname from the bootjack she required her customers to use before entering her room.
During her research Stevenson had talked to a number of people the woman had second hand knowledge of including former Mayor Owen Byers whose uncle had taken him out to the cemetery as a child to show him the stone.
“When Owen was mayor, he had a survey – a census recorded of the location and the names on the stones; her’s was one of them.”
But recent searches of the cemetery by Byers and Stevenson were fruitless. So Byers recently went back over the survey and headed to the cemetery where he found the small stone hidden under years of leaves and saplings.
“All we could see of the stone was the very top of it,” she says.
Stevenson and Byers cleaned up the area and Monday she returned to scrub the headstone to get rid of the moss which had grown there – it was then she discovered the word Mother on the top. That indicates her only son, known as Fred Finnegan, likely placed the stone there for her upon her death likely at the age of 75 or 76, says Stevenson.
“For a prostitute in that era – that is unheard of. That tells me she must have been a prostitute for only a short time…becoming a madam instead. She got out of the business or she would have been dead.”
Stevenson, who plans two more books on Bootjack Mary, is delighted by the find saying it will help people realize another part of their local history – a part that wasn’t spoken of in Victorian times. “These women were usually in the business from no fault of their own – it was just circumstances…you made your way so you could eat or you died.”
Stevenson says they were often treated very poorly in public and were abused. “They didn’t deserve what they got.”
The author says she understands some of the abuse people like Ranger faced because of the sexual harassment she faced as a young woman working as a draftsman. Finding Bootjack Mary’s grave is one way, she says, of honouring her.
“She’s not invisible. She’s a real person. This woman lived and I want her to be recognized as a living human soul.
“Maybe people who will read my books will visit the grave and make her real for themselves.”