September 27, 2004
Snake-Handlers In Ohio?

Relapsed Catholic wonders whether there are snake-handling churches in Ohio. Apparently there are. This rather scholarly-looking site places them “as far west as Columbus, Ohio and as far north as West Virginia”. That’s a bit confusing, since 99% of West Virginia is further south than Columbus – perhaps there are snake-handlers in the panhandle north of Wheeling. A friend in Ohio once offered to take me to visit a snake-handling church, or arrange a visit through intermediaries (I forget which) but she lived in the southern tip of the state, so the church she had in mind was most likely in or near Huntington, West Virginia, or possibly Ashland, Kentucky.

In my ignorance, I had thought that snake-handling was a southern thing, but it’s actually Appalachian. As I recall from living in Tuscaloosa in the 1990s, the three snake-handling churches in Alabama were all on Sand Mountain, in the far northeast corner of the state, much nearer to Chattanooga than to Birmingham or Montgomery. There had been four, but in 1991 a preacher with the delightful name of Glendel Buford Summerford got the brilliant idea of using his snakes to murder his wife. He wanted to marry his girlfriend, but members of the Church of Jesus with Signs tend to be hardliners about divorce. The Rev. Summerford forced his wife’s hands into his box of snakes so that she was bitten more than once, then took his time about calling an ambulance. The idea was that he would tell the police “I warned her not to play with the snakes when I wasn’t around! I told her her faith wasn’t strong enough to protect her!” Unfortunately for him, she didn’t die, and his girlfriend also testified against him. Amazon has an inexpensive book on the case, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. No doubt it would fill in the details.

I like to think of mystery novelists around the world slapping their foreheads when they read the story, saying “Damn! A new murder method! I wish I’d thought of that.” Unfortunately, it had one serious flaw. One of the few things I learned as a Boy Scout that I still remember is that pit vipers, which includes most American poisonous snakes – rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins – are not actually all that poisonous. If you are bitten by one of these snakes, you are unlikely to die even if you can’t get to a hospital, though you will certainly be in horrible pain for days, and you definitely want to use a tourniquette. Those who die of snakebite in the U.S. are usually infants, the very old, those who are already sick, or those who are bitten multiple times, or by very large snakes, or on the neck or chest, and especially those who fall into more than one of these categories. Also those who are drunk, since the venom of vipers attacks the blood, whereas the venom of cobras and many other tropical snakes, as well as coral snakes, attacks the nervous system: the anticoagulant effect of alcohol multiplies the effect of the venom. Of course, those who play incompetently with poisonous snakes outside of church are usually drunk, as in another news story from my time in Alabama: one guy died, and another almost did, playing catch [sic] with a rattlesnake they had found. Lesson: Rev. Summerford should have invested in a coral snake.

Except as linked, all this is ‘as I recall’, since I’m too lazy to do the necessary research to back it up.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at September 27, 2004 11:55 PM

When I was in high school in Madera, CA back in the '50's, a migrant worker, bitten by a rattlesnake in the fields, died. Before going to the hospital, he returned to the camp, took a shower, and changed his clothes. So it seems that a healthy young male can die of a rattlesnake bite, it he goes about it right.

Posted by: Kenneth Burke on September 29, 2004 02:43 AM

And Sandra Miesel assured me that such things existed! She wrote: "Columbus OH has the reputation of being the largest center of snake-handling Christian sects in the US." I am still shocked.

Posted by: Kathy Shaidle on October 3, 2004 06:53 PM