(Editor’s note: This is an update of a column from August 2013)
Snake handlers? For real? Where? Why? Isn’t the practice against the law? What happens to those who are bitten?
We know the answer to the last question with the death on Feb. 15 of Jamie Coots, 42, of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro. Responses to this event, which has claimed national and international attention, have been varied.
A native Harlan Countian told me, “Most of the people around here would be afraid to handle snakes. The danger, however, arouses my curiosity. There’s something interesting, appealing, just to see what would happen. It’s not that those who handle them are dumb: it’s just an avenue they take for acceptance into that community that believes in handling. It’s peer pressure, brain washing.”
One of my writing students from southwest Virginia sent me a poem this week entitled “Venomous Viper Vanities” in which she gives voice to the serpent:
While holding my body, you may feel
Even anointed by God;
But I, too, am anointed by God
In this dance of death.
I feel no shame,
I’m not to blame;
If it’s good enough to live by,
It’s good enough to die by.
Dr. Richard Crofts claims to be “by no means an expert” on the matter of snake handling as part of religious ceremonies, but he holds a Ph.D. in religion from Duke University and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from a Louisville seminary, so I interviewed him on Feb. 28.
Dr. Crofts pointed out the difficulties of a true translation of the Bible with copying mistakes and additions over the centuries. Further, he questioned why groups that follow the message of Mark 16: 9-20 have opted to single out the part on serpents when there are so many other commandments from the ministry of Jesus such as giving to the poor, loving your neighbors and your enemies, turning the other cheek to those who have offended you and forgiving others.
He also referred to the Bill of Rights which gives Americans the right to religious freedom and maintains that as long as others are not endangered , it becomes the personal business of those doing it regardless if others might “think it’s stupid.”
“Snakes are featured in other world religions, usually as a symbol of evil,” said Crofts, and he acknowledged that bites from poisonous snakes are often not fatal and that the book of Mark speaks also of drinking poisoning such as arsenic which is part of some religious ceremonies but is not widely practiced.
Crofts has questions as I’m sure most of us do. Have those who engage in the practice learned techniques for calming or stimulating the snakes? Are they searching for certainty in an uncertain world? Do they seek notoriety? What psychological need does this practice fulfill? How does it respond to the sociological needs of a community?
He concluded the practice can’t be explained away easily but something is driving it, and he “comes down on the side of religious and academic freedom unless acting on those ideas endangers others such as young children.”
My limited experience
As a child growing up in Cumberland, I never saw folks handling snakes, but my sister Frances did. When she was in first grade, she and her classmates ate lunch each day in the basement of a snake-handling church across the Cumberland River. The church is long gone as is the building that housed the first graders at the time at the intersection of 119 and Main Street in Cumberland. Additionally, returning from the Central Baptist Church one evening, she declares that in the Fairview Section of Cumberland, she looked into a house where a red light glowed and snakes were in the coffin of a deceased person.
When I was president of the college in Cumberland, one of our students died. I wanted to pay my respects, so I drove to the white-board church up on Pine Mountain and parked my car in a precarious position on the side of a steep drop-off. I had been told that the congregation was committed to “taking up serpents” per Luke 10:19 and Mark 16: 17-18, and the lore was that snakes might be used in the funeral service, perhaps even placed in the coffin.
I very quietly slipped into a back-row, exit seat, did not introduce myself to anyone, and with my heart beating rapidly, was poised to make a hasty exit if the snakes were brought front and center. There were no snakes that day. Was I disappointed? Would my story be more interesting if there had been?
Director of law enforcement, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife
Hank Patton, director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, reports that in 2008 the organization, which he directs, was involved in “Operation Twice Shy” (once bitten, twice shy). He acknowledges that he cannot comment on the current status of this initiative, but in Kentucky it is illegal to buy, sell, trade, barter or exchange any protected species such as indigenous snakes.
Individuals can own up to five native/indigenous species of snakes. He indicates that the main focus of his organization is the protection of wild life, that wildlife not be mistreated. Further, according to Patton, poisonous snakes are captured because of “their commercial value, and the value is determined by the demand.”
Federal and state laws
Our country was founded, in part, on freedom of religion per Amendment I to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Kentucky laws regarding poisonous snakes are complex and, of course, subject to interpretation and judicial rulings. In March of this year Kentucky House Bill 279, which protects “sincerely held religious beliefs from infringement” unless there is “a compelling governmental interest” was vetoed by Gov. Steve Beshear who cited his reason: “While it is well intentioned, there are possible unintended consequences…with an impact on public safety, health care, civil rights.” His veto was overridden 79 to 15 in the Kentucky House and 32 to 6 in the Senate.
A snake catcher
According to Harlan Countian Joe Smith* since religious freedom is part of the foundation of this country, it is difficult to arrest or prosecute those who are “anointed by God to take up serpents.”
Smith has been fascinated by poisonous snakes since he was a small child. His father, a coal miner at Grays Knob, brought snakes home and placed them in a glass-and-screen box. Instead of watching television or playing outside, Smith observed the snakes for hours on end.
He also saw an older gentleman handling snakes at an unnamed church, and the practice at that church continues today. According to Smith, the Foxfire series features Dexter Callahan and his practice of handling snakes at the Pine Mountain Church of God.
David Kimbrough in “Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky” writes, “Usually, as a mountain man named Dexter Callahan informed me, the unbeliever would torment the snakes by whipping them with sticks, shaking up the snake box, burning them with cigarettes or cutting off the tips of their tail.”
Smith’s grandmother’s brother was bitten 18 times by copperheads and rattlesnakes, and Smith says, only one “liked to have killed him. He was treated at Harlan ARH.”
Smith sells the snakes he captures, and the male rattlers go for $100 for a four-foot one with the price going up according to the length. The longest one Smith has captured was 67 inches. Copperheads are sold if they are at least three feet in length. The longest Smith has captured was 46 inches. His best year ever was last year when he caught 106 rattlers and 300 copperheads.
The best times, according to Smith, to catch big rattlers is in May before they leave their dens to forage for food and when they return to those same dens from mid August to mid September. Copperheads, on the other hand, are readily available all summer under rocks, in log piles, and under power lines where they go to sun themselves. Along the paths under power lines is a good place for snake catchers as well because the path has been cut; however, the escape to brush and woods on either side of the path makes for good hiding for snakes. Hunting snakes, according to Smith, “is like turkey hunting in the spring or deer hunting in the fall.”
About 20 years ago, Smith started going to church, encouraged to do so by “a guy I worked with in the mines. He was a snake handler and a preacher. After the first night in church, something made me want to come back. Everyone there was happy; there was a light about them. They were having a good time without drugs or alcohol. I was clean and sober then. Later, a woman I met at a local store made me want to quit going to church. Things went real good when we first got together, and then the relationship soured. I left her and the church. Now I only visit church now and then.”
The procedure for snake handling in church, according to Smith, is as follows. “God will anoint someone (anyone in the church) when it’s time, and the purpose is to show a sinner man that there’s power in God.
“When you handle a snake it’s like handling fire, like a cold wind. Fire won’t burn you, and the snake won’t hurt you.”
He says, ”When you’re anointed and handling a snake, it feels like a cloud from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. A warm shield and nothing will bother you. The warm shield slowly leaves but will return if God anoints again.”
Smith believes a dozen churches in Harlan County engage in the practice of snake handling, “Holiness, Church of God, Pentecostal, some in town, some out of town.” He maintains that “these congregations have a right to their religious practices as long as they’re not bothering anybody. It’s hard to beat that right to religious beliefs in court. One of my uncles who lives across Pine Mountain won in court back in the 70’s on that very issue.”
Smith recently had an unexpected consequence of his snake hunting. He reports that he had an open blister from digging a ditch. His snake hook has a rubber handle, and he located a den of copperheads. The snakes struck at his tool, releasing venom. He handled the hook throughout the day, and the venom from the handle got in his open blister.
The following day, a Monday, his hand and arm were burning and swollen. His doctor prescribed antibiotics. By Wednesday, the doctor ordered steroids and more antibiotics. By Friday his arm and hand were doubled in size, and he went to the Harlan ARH. On Saturday he was sent to the University of Kentucky Hospital where he stayed for eight days. At that facility “They cut a hole in my palm so big you could drop a nickel through it. Packing was put in the hole to get the infection out, packing that was changed four times a day.”
So in answer to the query about his return to catching snakes once he heals, his prompt response was “I’m ready to go.”
“Ready to go” is new for Smith, not only because of his injury but also because his best friend died several months ago. After six days of searching for him in the mountains, Smith found him, and the depression from that experience has been slow to lift.
Harlan ARH emergency room
When I called Harlan ARH, I was told that when a person arrives at the ER with a snakebite, personnel call Kentucky Poison Control (1 800 222-1222), get help in identifying the variety of the snake, and follow the protocol recommended by them. Hospital patient records indicate the circumstances surrounding the injury, but law enforcement is not notified.
Harlan County sheriff
With a family history of involvement in law enforcement (His father Marvin “Gunsmoke” Lipfird was Police Chief at Evarts and his son Brit recently graduated from the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Academy at Eastern Kentucky University) Harlan County Sheriff Marvin Lipfird indicates his department has yet to receive a complaint about snake handling.
He states his position as follows: “Who am I to tell someone they can’t worship by taking up serpents? I am very proud to be a Harlan Countian. Harlan County is not just in the Bible Belt: We’re the buckle on that belt.
“Furthermore, I’m proud that we have so many different denominations here, and I’m proud of the fact that we can share our points of view. I’m Baptist, and my best friend is Church of God. We might not agree, but we respect the beliefs each has. I’m an educated man, and I’ve never been able to see what’s in someone’s heart. My relationship with Jesus Christ is my personal relationship.”
Lipfird continues, “I have more important things to do than going around and committing what I basically consider religious persecution of people by trying to count how many snakes they have. I have limited resources, and I have a drug epidemic going on, so the way I see it is this: If they’re in church and have enough faith to pick up a serpent, more than likely, they’re not a drug dealer. They’re right where they need to be. I’m fully supportive of them. How can you go wrong when you’re worshipping the Lord?”
And so, this story ends. Everyone has one, and I’ve shared with you the attitudes and values of some Kentuckians. Finally, National Geographic Channel has a feature on this subject entitled “Snake Salvation” which debuted on Sept. 10, 2013, and was filmed around eastern Kentucky. Maybe you’ve seen it. Pastor Jamie Coots was one of the subjects.
*Joe Smith is a pseudonym for the young Harlan County man who graciously shared his background and beliefs with me on this subject.
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