BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Tales of ghosts and spirits are all very well, I told my hosts, but a reporter needs something objective and tangible upon which to peg a story.
That's when the fork came flying out of nowhere -- or rather over a low partition separating a group of diners in a corner of a cosy dining room with closed windows and no door.
"Did you see that?" I asked one of my table mates, Towson State University student Michelle Salapka. She nodded her head but couldn't bring the words to her now gaping lips, her eyes wide as saucers, staring at the fork on the table between us.
The dinner, hosted by the Maryland Ghost and Spirit Association at the Baltimore seafood restaurant Bertha's Mussels, was turning into a rousing success. The 800-member group, whose Web site is at http://www.marylandghosts.com, is dedicated to investigating "ghostly paranormal phenomenon" at Civil War and other old sites around Maryland.
Beverly Litsinger, who founded the organisation a few years ago with her husband and daughter, was nearby watching members "photograph" spirits.
"She just caught two orbs!" shouted Litsinger.
Images of weird glowing orbs, floating in the air over the tables inexplicably, were showing up on digital cameras. One photo showed an odd cartoonish hazy grey figure with huge almond eyes standing in the background.
Other participants were dashing up and down the stairs and into back rooms of the restaurant, taking readings with temperature guns -- looking for hot and cold spots. And then there were the strange electromagnetic readings showing up on the EMF (electromagnetic field detectors) that some were wielding.
"You can also get full bodies with digital," said Litsinger, who came equipped with two albums full of pictures she and others claim were of ghosts and spirits captured at some of the 200 or so "haunted" sites around the state.
They showed more orbs, lots of orbs, in and around graveyards and Civil War sites, old and sometimes abandoned buildings, including schools and hospitals. Some photos showed strange white clouds of what could be smoke, swirling provocatively.
"That's ectoplasm," said Litsinger. You can sometimes catch the evolution from orbs to ectoplasm to full-figured ghosts, she explained later in an interview at her home in North Baltimore. "Orbs are a mechanism they use to travel."
To catch the ghosts, she uses 800 ASA film, used in low-light and fast shutter speed situations. "They're travelling fast so you need a faster film," she said.
'SHADOW PEOPLE' IN THE CORNER OF HER EYE
Back in the restaurant, Michelle was shaken, a bit frightened. So why was she there?
"My boyfriend is convinced I see shadow people," she said, adding that she sometimes thinks she sees people out of the corner of her eye, then turns to find no one there.
I'm still a little sceptical, concerned that this feature is going to read like something in the Halloween edition of a high school newspaper. After all, maybe the fork was sitting on that partition all along and somebody walking past had knocked it off and rushed into the next room. Or something.
Litsinger thrust an EMF detector into my hand and pushed me over to a stained glass window behind a glass partition in a passage in the restaurant. I read "Bertha E. Bartholomew," amid flowers and angels and clouds. It was some sort of memorial.
The reading goes off the dial, at the edge of the red. Must be a fluorescent light or something in there, I said. Then the reading goes back into the green near zero. The light didn't even flicker.
"She likes to come and go," said Litsinger, calling the glass a "haunted object."
Laura Norris, owner of Bertha's Mussels since 1972, said the window, once mounted in a Lutheran church on Hanover Street in South Baltimore, was purchased years ago at a junk yard.
"Bertha, can we take your picture?" said a woman with a camera. "It's not going to hurt you." Bertha, presumably, isn't familiar with digital cameras.
Norris said she's never seen a ghost. "But I feel them," she insisted. Them? "I think there's a man and a woman...I always felt she was benevolent. I'd feel really tingly."
But there's another angry presence. "Sometimes the cats will come hissing down the hall with their backs up," Norris said.
Norris said her son-in-law had glimpsed a tall man with a full-length coat and big hat at the top of a flight of stairs as he was coming down. "He felt an angry presence and didn't want to turn around," she said.
Others have seen a woman in a bustle and big hat in the dining room in the early hours of the morning. "That could be Bertha," Norris said.
"Have you seen them?" I asked a waitress. "No, but she has," she said, pointing to a young woman carrying dishes.
"I'm kind of busy right now," said the second waitress, who identified herself only as Delvina.
I pressed her for more.
"It was sort of cloudy, milky white," she said finally.
HOTBED OF HAUNTINGS
"Ectoplasm," I nodded sagely. Where was my sceptical hat?
Maryland, it seems, is a hotbed of hauntings due in part to the Civil War, in which large numbers of people died violently before they were ready to depart this Earth.
Although the full story behind the Bertha's Mussels hauntings is not known, the building was a seamen's bar -- and we know what scary, violent places they were.
The story surrounding another nearby restaurant, the Zodiac, is better known. It seems the owner of a speak-easy on the site, a surly, hard-drinking man, hanged himself there after his wife ran off with another man.
"I asked the spirit if it would move something for me and there was a pole that just started rotating," said Karen Corkran, a member of the ghost association, of an outing there.
"I felt something extremely powerful up there. I got real tight in my chest and I couldn't breathe."
"Why ghosts?" I asked Litsinger at her home.
"I've always been able to pick up and communicate with them. My daughter inherited the ability," she replied.
"But why do they stick around?" Why not go on "into the light" or wherever it is we end up, I inquired.
"God gives us freedom of choice on Earth, and if you die he doesn't take it away," she explained.
"Some stay behind to watch over loved ones or take care of things they needed to do and some people take time to realise they're dead."
She told the story of a young girl she called Annie who was sent away to school a century ago at the Patapsico Institute outside Baltimore. In letters recovered after her death, Annie complained bitterly to her parents about her mean teachers, the backward townsfolk and the bitter cold.
So her parents agreed to come and bring her home, but it was too late. It really was cold, and she died of pneumonia as they were en route to fetch her.
A pretty girl with long hair flowing down her back, Annie "can be seen carrying a suitcase out the front door" of the now shuttered school, said Litsinger. "Annie's been waiting for over 100 years for her parents to come and get her."