By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005
There was no sign of the flock of sheep said to hover several feet off the ground of a field in St. Mary's County. There were absolutely no sightings -- not even a long shadow, a spotted suggestion -- of the "giraffedoman," with its human face, dog ears, neck and legs of a giraffe, that's been rumored to prowl the county's dark woods.
The home of John Wilkes Booth's doctor and the graveyard at one of the oldest continually active parishes in the United States did yield some strange glowing orbs in the digital photographs, but nothing conclusive or dramatic.
The ghost hunters, however, were undeterred.
Well after midnight, five hours into investigating the occult in Southern Maryland, the intrepid hunters arrived at the local mecca of incorporeal possibilities.
"Here we go, ladies and gentlemen," said Thomas W. "TJ" Stalcup Jr., 20, a graphic designer, as he pulled to a stop inside Point Lookout State Park. "The lighthouse."
"I don't feel like getting arrested tonight," said Tabitha Deibler, 21, Stalcup's fiancee and a founding member of SoMd Ghost Hunters, a group of friends whose Web site proclaims their mission to be "providing proof of spirits in Southern Maryland and beyond."
"Stay in the car, then," Stalcup said.
He got out. The hunters slipped silently around the fence, as moonlight cast their shadows on the grass. Stalcup approached the old lighthouse slowly, holding his camera above his head. He snapped off photos and looked at the readout. "Dude, check it out," he told a friend, passing the camera.
Then, out of the darkness, a glowing light. The hunters froze. Stalcup stared, eyes wide.
Officially, Point Lookout State Park and its lighthouse are closed after sundown, but this doesn't keep the youth of Southern Maryland from showing up. The stories are too good to ignore: 50,000 Confederate soldiers were held prisoner there during the Civil War; nearly 4,000 died, some of smallpox and starvation, according to park histories. British troops raided the site during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Shipwrecks are said to litter these waters. State employees -- presumably no-nonsense, credible sources -- tell tales of footsteps in the night, mysterious apparitions, the lingering stench of death.
"I do believe Point Lookout is haunted," said Laura Berg, a procurement officer at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She was the last person to live in the lighthouse.
"On several occasions, I have witnessed a man running across the road through Point Lookout," Don Hammett, a former ranger at the park, wrote in his pamphlet, "True Tales of the Bizarre and Unnatural." "Could the figure have been the spirit of a Confederate prisoner . . . ?"
For Stalcup and his friends, such fascinations so close to home beg for further investigation. So in early February, after researching local myths in the library in Leonardtown, the group began what has become a weekly tradition, venturing out Saturday nights in a back-road caravan for as much as eight hours of poking around at rickety houses, old graveyards and spooky churches. The first stop on a recent Saturday night was St. Ignatius Church in Charles County, a Catholic parish founded in 1641 that overlooks the Port Tobacco River. A cold wind scoured the bluff, and a low yellow moon shone through the trees. The four friends crept through the graveyard flashing photos at random.
"You always get activity in cemeteries," Stalcup whispered. "There are so many souls, you're guaranteed."
By activity, Stalcup is primarily referring to "orbs," small circular spots that show up on some photos they take. The conventional wisdom, among those who don't believe in ghosts, is that orbs are simply dust or other airborne particles revealed by the flash.
But to ghost hunters, the orb is akin to a spirit car, the shape ghosts assume when traveling. A larger cloudy shape might be "an ectoplasm," said Beverly Litsinger, president of the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association. "That's the form [ghosts] take just before they turn into a full body."
But no luck on the ectoplasm, so off they drove. Next stop was the Waldorf home once occupied by Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth as he fled after killing President Abraham Lincoln.
The hunters could barely wait for Point Lookout, where visitors and residents have reported ghostly occurrences for years. The park even holds a spirit walk around Halloween.
The first night Berg moved into the lighthouse in 1979, she said, she heard heavy, boot-like footsteps in the second floor hallway. Berg, who lives in Baltimore, is still an active ghost hunter and has a hunt planned at Point Lookout in April. She uses a digital voice recorder, and her daughter bought her a TriField electromagnetic detector for Christmas.
The detector would have been useless on the light that Stalcup and his friends spotted that night by the lighthouse. As the light got brighter, it became clear to the hunters that they were seeing the headlights of a sheriff's cruiser. The hunters arranged themselves in their most innocent poses.
"What are you guys taking pictures of at night?" the officer asked.
"Just the lighthouse," someone replied, as if evening portraiture was old hat around here.
"You all know the park is closed," the officer said. "You look like intelligent people who can read a sign."
"I don't want to mess with you guys tonight," the officer finally said, and the hunters scrambled for their vehicles.
Enough excitement, they agreed, and called off the hunt. Altogether, not a bad night, though. "Cheaper than the movies," Stalcup said.
Thomas W. "TJ" Stalcup Jr. and Tabitha Deibler search for spirits in the St. Ignatius Church cemetery in Charles County.