Blackburn went to the serpent box and got the two copperheads out

Posted by | November 11, 2009

As the day was coming to a close and the evening was drawing on people started to the church. They came from the hollows and mountains where they lived. That night Lester Raines took two copperheads that Blackburn had caught early that week for the church service. Lester had a hole dug out in the bank at the back of his cabin. My uncle Hastel Presnell said that he saw six rattlesnakes and four copperhead in a cage back in the bank where Lester lived.

The church was small, about 22 by 31 feet. They lighted the church with gas lamps. That night the church house was full of people from everywhere. Oscar Pelfrey, Jacky Euel Blackburn, Oll McMahan, and family all from Virginia. Also there were Alvin Hall, Carl Hall and family, Cora James, Edward Lee Turner and family. Other people at church that night were Joe Frank Turner and family, Lester Raines and family, Mary Turner and family, Ed Arrwood, Riley Arrwood and family, Sarah Turner, and Della Mae Turner. Leote Wilford was also there with her children, Lepolian, Sarah Mae, Ruby, Maggie, Leon, Frances, and James. Several more families were there.

snake handlers in Harlan KYCaption reads: “Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. Company funds have not been used in this church and it is not on company property. Most of the members are coal miners and their families. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky.” Taken Sept 15, 1946.

Service got started with the congregation singing. Then they had prayer request and there was prayer. They also had special singing. About that time Mullins from Virginia carried up front a big black rattlesnake in a box and set it next to a box with two copperheads in it. Jacky Euel Blackburn, Lester Raines, Oscar Pelfrey, Oll McMahan, and Mullins were sitting up front.

Someone moved the serpent boxes and set them on the piano bench. Johnny Raines was singing “Jacob’s Ladder” when Blackburn went to the serpent box and got the two copperheads out. After he handled them, he put the copperheads back in the box. He opened the box that had the big large timber-back rattlesnake in it. Gladys told me it was as big as a man’s arm and over 6 feet long. As Blackburn was a handling it, he put it around Johnny’s shoulder. The snake crawled down Johnny’s arm. The large rattlesnake struck Johnny on the right hand.

Johnny let the serpent fall to the floor. Lester picked it up and put it back in the back. A few seconds after the serpent bit Johnny, he started to sink to the floor. He got real sick and passed out. The church member started praying for him. Still Johnny he got worse. They got him down to Valintine Shults where they talked Lester Raines into taking his son to the hospital. Johnny was only fifteen years old when he got bit.

On Monday, August 6, 1951, the ‘Newport Plain Talk’ had an article headed “Warrant Issued for Snake Handler: Lad Bitten: Reported Seriously.” It said that the boy has fair chance of recovery. It went on to say that a warrant was issued this Monday morning by Esquire Walter Layman against Jacky Blackburn, a so-called preacher from Virginia, charging him with handling and displaying poisonous snakes to the endangerment of lives and health of others.

Officers were requested to destroy the rattlesnake if it was still in the county. The officers went to the Sand Hill Church of God in Jesus’ Name and found the two copperheads and the big rattlesnake behind the church in the weeds. They got them and put them in the car and up the old 15th where they stopped at Timman Ball’s store. Timman told me some thirty-five years ago there was venom all over the inside of the box. The rattlesnake that was in it would bite the box it was so mean.

excerpt from Handling Serpents: Pastor Jimmy Morrow’s History of His Appalachian Jesus’ Name Tradition, ed. Ralph W. Hood, Mercer University Press, 2005

One Response

  • Max Messer Jr says:

    My grandfather, Roy A. Lane, was a coal miner from Big Stone Gap Virginia and also a pentecostal preacher. He was a snake handler. He handled snakes in what was locally called “the bottom church”. I know that he handled snakes there with a man named Pelfry. My grandfather was bitten by a snake and his death was partially contributable to that snake bite.

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