Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith

Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith

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by Fred W. Brown, Jeanne McDonald

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Church members who take Mark 16: 17-18 as a central tenet of their faith call themselves Signs Followers. Previous accounts of the Signs Followers focused on the sensational aspects of the religion: picking up poisonous snakes, drinking strychnine, speaking in tongues.

Within these churches are several families whose history in the tradition stretches back as far as


Church members who take Mark 16: 17-18 as a central tenet of their faith call themselves Signs Followers. Previous accounts of the Signs Followers focused on the sensational aspects of the religion: picking up poisonous snakes, drinking strychnine, speaking in tongues.

Within these churches are several families whose history in the tradition stretches back as far as the religion itself, which dates only to 1910. In The Serpent Handlers, the authors use extensive interviews with the participants to tell the stories of three of the most prominent snake-handling families—the Brown family of Cocke County, Tennessee, the Elkins family of Jolo, West Virginia, and the Coots family of Middlesboro, Kentucky.

Fred Brown, a feature writer with the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is a member of the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. Jeanne McDonald is a recipient of the Tennessee Arts Commission/Alex Haley Fiction Fellowship and a Washington Prize for Fiction. They live in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Husband-and-wife team Brown and McDonald here introduce readers to the Elkinses of West Virginia, the Browns of Tennessee and the Cootses of Kentucky. The book provides a fascinating foray into the life of these faithful snake-handling families. Especially absorbing are discussions of the miraculous healing of Gregory Coots's eye, which was damaged by gunshot when he was six years old; the poignant story of matriarch Barbara Robinson Elkins's 23-year-old daughter, Columbia, dying of a snakebite wound; and Joe Robert Elkins's testimony that he once died of a snakebite wound, ascended to the "most beautifuliest place I ever seen" and was brought back to life because God listened to the earnest pleadings of his fellow church members. Interspersed throughout Brown and McDonald's analysis are passages, drawn from interviews, in which the snake handlers speak for themselves; these sections, without question, are the richest in the book. The authors insist that their subjects are fiercely independent mountain people, but the frequent gestures in the direction of abusive coal-mining fathers and pious God-fearing mothers box the three families into familiar cliches. Readers with time for only one book on snake handling should stick to Dennis Covington's prize-winning Salvation on Sand Mountain; those less easily sated will enjoy this, but they may want to skip Brown and McDonald's commentary and go straight to the handlers themselves. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
While snake-handling Christians, called sign followers, have been the subject of periodic media attention, they have rarely been allowed to tell their own stories without editorial comment. Brown and McDonald (coauthors of Growing Up Southern) have interviewed members of three families to create a clear picture of these believers. The text derives from taped interviews, and each of the participants was allowed to read and approve the final text to eliminate misconceptions or errors, What results is a remarkably unbiased presentation that avoids sensationalism while offering a vivid glimpse into the lives and beliefs of these people. Though the authors present the historic and doctrinal background of the sect, the most important part of the book is its firsthand accounts. Neither charlatans nor lunatics, the sign followers have intense faith and absolute conviction, and their readiness to die for their beliefs is impressive. A real insight into this unusual aspect of American religion, this book is recommended for academic and public libraries.--C. Robert Nixon, M.L.S., Lafayette, IN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Memoirs of families in Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky who handle poisonous snakes as part of their Christian faith are collected by journalist Brown, who has spent 15 years learning and writing about them, and fiction writer McDonald, his wife. She was able to learn more about the place of women in the movement than he had. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It was the beauty of the lush hills and
valleys and the abundant water resources
that gave Cocke County its economic
boost. Just as the French Broad made
Newport a vital river port in the 1700s,
the rivers have made tourism a profitable
business in more recent years.

    On the outskirts of Newport, Tennessee, an immense roadside billboard reads, "That `Love thy neighbor' thing ... I meant that. God."

    The sign represents radical change in an area that once had the reputation of being the meanest place in Tennessee. Cocke County, which straddles Interstate 40 between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, has frequently been the scene of drunken brawls, drug trafficking, murders, cockfighting, beatings, and grudges settled by gunfights. Its wild history of lawlessness was inherited from the region's days as a rough frontier town, when Cherokee Indians rode the rolling hills and William Cocke, a companion of Daniel Boone, crossed the Allegheny Mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee.

    Though Cocke County has yet to completely overcome its reputation, it is not without its positive history. It is the birthplace of both Metropolitan Opera star Grace Moore, who was born in Slabtown, now known as Nough, near Del Rio, and Kiffin Yates Rockwell, the first American aviator to shoot down an enemy plane in World War I. And just outside Del Rio is Christy Mission, where a North Carolina girl named Catherine Marshall came to teachmountain children a hundred years ago. Her story, Christy, was turned into a novel, a Broadway musical, and a television series.

    Things have begun to turn around for Cocke County in the last two decades. Circuit-court judge Kenneth Porter, a lifelong resident, said in 1990, "There are signs that Cocke County is living down its reputation. We went the past two, three years without a homicide. Most of the old saloons we had in Newport have been closed."

    And as saloons closed, churches opened, some in town and some in outlying areas like Parrottsville, where serpent-handling preacher John Brown and his family live. In this little community located along Highway 321 between Newport and Greeneville, the 250 residents live mostly by farming beef cattle, tobacco, and grain. John Brown has held a multitude of jobs during his sixty years—farmworker, landscaper, gravedigger, salesman—but he is presently a carpenter.

    If progress has not moved as quickly in Cocke County as in other Tennessee counties since the early 1800s, that is due in part to the fact that more than a hundred thousand acres of its land lie in Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making the entire south end of the county rural mountain land that is off the tax rolls. This rurality brings both isolation and insulation for many of the people who live in the area. Small Fundamentalist churches spring up as social and religious havens, giving their members a sense of comfort and community and bringing together cluster groups of people who don't fit into the larger outside world.

    In Newport, the county seat and the area's largest town, churches are interspersed among other old buildings along the main street in the downtown area and out past the city limits—Liberty Temple, Full Gospel, Gethsemane Free Will Baptist. In the old business district, carpet and furniture stores are sandwiched among crumbling bars and lounges, abandoned buildings with brick fronts and gracefully arched windows, and an occasional Holiness church. There is an atmosphere of decay along these streets. One store still has Christmas decorations in the window in June; the windows are grimy; the buildings are generally neglected. Newer and brighter shopping malls on the outskirts of the city have lured customers away from downtown businesses and introduced a vast new world of modern consumer products.

    At one time, Newport was a big canning center; Stokely Van Camp employed hundreds of local residents. Another once-thriving business, furniture making, still provides a living for many citizens. In the 1990 census, the numbers showed that the main occupations were sales work, clerical work, service work, precision work, line production, and repair work. Topping the list were machine operators, assemblers, and inspectors. Jobs in farming, forestry, and fishing—previously a much greater source of employment in the area—had dwindled to 389.

    Cocke County was created in 1797 when a triangular piece of Jefferson County was chopped off and named after the distinguished general William Cocke, who helped settle the territory. It is bounded by the counties of Hamblen and Greene to the north and by Jefferson and Sevier to the west and southwest. The base of the triangle rests on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Two rivers—the French Broad and the Pigeon—flow through the area, and the Nolichucky River creates the northern boundary. After eighty-two years of toxic dumping by the Champion Paper Company upstream in Canton, North Carolina, bitter litigation and negotiation have recently led to a cleanup that is still in progress.

    Following World War I, the county earned a reputation as the nation's moonshine capital. And in the late 1980s, it became notorious as a champion grower of marijuana. The town's relative isolation has left little room for anything except logging and apple growing in earlier days and factory work—at Quaker Oats, Stokely Van Camp, and various furniture factories—today.

    The population of Cocke County is an amalgam of Dutch, Irish, French, German, African, and Scottish immigrants. To their land, the people gave names like Dutch Bottom, Irish Cut, Pig Trot, Bat Harbor, Sunset Gap, Frog Pond, and Purty Holler Gap. Insulated on small farms, isolated by both poverty and geography, they turned to family, neighbors, and God for sustenance. The church, especially, gave them the opportunity to come together, to sing and enjoy fellowship, and to forget, for the duration of the service, their daily hardscrabble lives. "We didn't know there was a depression here in the country," says Lucy Black Ownby, who grew up in and eventually inherited her grandfather's house beside Caney Creek in Cosby. "We lived like there was a depression all the time. It was just all hard, but we got by. We grew what we ate and ate what we grew. We never did go hungry or naked. I never had to eat cornbread for breakfast. You got to know, though, that there wasn't nothing else around here. You either farmed or you made moonshine to feed your family. Some women made it, too."

    It was the beauty of the lush hills and valleys and the abundant water resources that gave Cocke County its economic boost. Just as the French Broad made Newport a vital river port in the 1700s, the rivers have made tourism a profitable business in more recent years. Outdoor recreation and resorts are the big draws; hiking, camping, kayaking, and whitewater rafting attract nature lovers from all over the country.

    Once you cross the Pigeon River on the way out of town, you begin to notice well-kept old Victorian houses with wraparound porches and beautifully manicured lawns. Real estate is cheap in this land-rich county. The average cost of a two-bath, two-bedroom house is seventy-five thousand dollars.

    Farther out, where the country is more mountainous, house trailers cling to the steep, rocky hills. Along the roads are more churches—Free Will Baptist, Victory Baptist, Community Chapel Worship Center, Assembly of God, all set against a breathtaking backdrop of emerald-colored mountains and gleaming rivers. Farmhouses anchored on acres and acres of land dot the rocky landscape. Some modest houses beside the road boast healthy vegetable and flower gardens, while others grow a rusty crop of abandoned automobiles and broken and discarded appliances. On the left is a brand-new barn, on the right a dilapidated structure where cows wander in and out between sagging boards. An ancient Ford truck, rust-eaten except for a trace of green paint, and an old, bowlegged wringer washer on the makeshift porch of a trailer are evidence of the area's tenacious connection to the past. Satellite dishes in hillside yards show the residents a more prosperous outside world than they previously could have imagined. In the case of the serpent handlers who live in this area, it is a world they shun.

    Isolation has also led to high levels of unemployment and illiteracy. Today, Cocke County's population of just over thirty-one thousand is heavily weighted toward the thirty- to thirty-four-year-old age group, which may indicate an optimistic trend for the area. The average income in 1994 was $14,139. The unemployment rate in 1995 stood at just over 11 percent. Many Cocke Countians are retired or disabled. Payments for retirement and disability insurance, unemployment, income maintenance, and veterans came to $122,356,000 in 1995. That figure included $17,267,000 for unemployment insurance benefits.

    Illiteracy is a decisive factor in the socioeconomic problems of Cocke County. A third of the residents have less than a ninth-grade education; only half of those who remained in school longer have earned high-school diplomas; and six of every hundred have a bachelor's degree. These numbers help explain the endurance of remnants of the original Scots-Irish dialect, the preservation of inherited colloquialisms and grammatical forms, and a stubborn adherence to old customs and beliefs.

    For the serpent-handling believers especially, there is resistance to being out in the world. Members seldom travel far beyond their own community of fellowship except to attend revivals in neighboring states among their inner circle of churches. To the Signs Followers, the outside world is negligible; the real reward lies in what God offers above and beyond this present life. For them, Cocke County is only a rest stop on the long, hard highway to eternity.

Chapter Two



For misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upwards.

Job 5: 6-7


                        Nobody knows it yet, but the video camera set up in the back of the Rock House Holiness Church of God is recording the last two hours of John Wayne "Punkin" Brown's life. Punkin, from Newport, Tennessee, is thirty-four years old. He's one of the favorite evangelists on the serpent-handling circuit, a dedicated young man with an outgoing personality and an energetic style of preaching. Charismatic—that's what they call him. In the seventeen years he has been in the Signs Following religion, Punkin has never refused a call to preach, to save, to heal, or to rededicate a single soul. He's known for his unique style of bouncing across the front of churches and skipping up and down the aisles. When the spirit of God covers Punkin Brown, you know it. You hear it, you see it, you feel it. It's so palpable you can almost taste it.

    It is October 3, 1998, a warm autumn evening in Macedonia, Alabama. Punkin is one of the featured evangelists who will be preaching at the evening program, but he has still not arrived at the church when the service begins. Later, when he pulls into the parking lot, he will tell a friend that he stopped alongside the road to clean out his snake boxes.

    The crowd that has gathered is small—mostly women and children. A few men sit on the stage and on the benches against the side wall. Three snake boxes are pushed against the pulpit. Occasionally, one of microphones on the stage picks up the dry, deadly sound of a rattle.

    The Signs Followers adhere to what they believe is a mandate in Mark 16: 17-18, which reads, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."

    The service is slow to start. People wander around the church, a small one-room building with a dozen or so pews. A guitar tunes up; a baby cries. Several people join in a hymn—"I'm on My Way to Heaven." On the stage, a man in a white shirt and cream-colored pants does a few halfhearted dance steps, but nobody seems enthusiastic. The spirit is lacking. God hasn't moved, not yet. There is more music, more singing; a few women begin to clap. Some push their hands out into the air or raise their arms over their heads. "He'll be there to help you if you call upon His name," proclaims the next hymn. Children, restless and expectant, wander among the pews. A woman stands and rocks back and forth with her child on her shoulder.

    Billy Summerford, the minister, is preaching about the spirit of God. "I've seen it float into a church like a big blue cloud," he says.

    But not tonight. Something's different tonight. There's a pall hanging over the Rock House Holiness Church of God, as if all the energy has been sucked from the building by some unseen force. The congregation is waiting for Punkin—Punkin and Jamie Coots, a serpent-handling preacher from Middlesboro, Kentucky. When the two men come into the church a half-hour later, things pick up a little, but something still doesn't feel right. Jamie Coots greets the men on the stage, gives the holy kiss to a couple of them. Punkin sits behind the pulpit, his head framed by the small window behind him. A woman sings "I'm Going Home to Be with Jesus," and the young mother with the child rocks a little harder, gaining momentum. A few other women come forward now, barefooted, prepared for the rocking-step dance they perform in front of the altar. One seems to swoon. Her knees fold; she sways, then rights herself. In a minute, she twirls in a circle with arms extended. God has arrived.

    The woman with the baby brings the child forward, and a healing circle forms around her. Those in the circle raise their hands, touch the child, and offer prayers. One is ululating, singing out a high-pitched, incomprehensible lament, but no one pays much attention. A young woman with long, dark hair walks to the pulpit and sings "He Didn't Have to Do It, But He Did."

    The snake boxes are pushed back toward the prayer bench. Again, a microphone picks up the sound of a rattle, but so far, none of the boxes has been opened. No one has been anointed or been covered up by the spirit. Punkin sits on a bench behind the altar tuning his guitar and occasionally whispering to his friend Jamie Coots. Finally, he steps forward and begins to play his guitar. He sings "I'm Gonna Let It Shine." Still, everything appears to be happening in slow motion. The minister invites Jamie Coots to preach—a respectful convention in the serpent-handling churches—but Jamie shakes his head no.

    "We're letting Satan control the service tonight," proclaims the minister. "We need to get up and start performing for the Lord."

    Punkin, too, seems dispirited, tired. "We need to get stirred up," he tells the people. He asks someone to read from Romans, the New Testament book that is a message from the apostle Paul to the Christians of Rome. Punkin asks for chapter 13. As the reader shouts out the lines, Punkin repeats them, stalking back and forth behind the pulpit.

    "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God," says the reader.

    "No higher power," Punkin echoes. Head down, concentrating, he seems to pick up a little energy.

    "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation."

    "Whosoever resisteth the power of God," Punkin repeats. He circles restlessly.

    There are calls from the men on the stage, a Greek chorus. "Come on, come on. Tell it."

    "Those who resisteth receive damnation," says Punkin.

    "Amen. Come on."

    The reader continues. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same."

    "We're fixing to find out what the power was," Punkin avows.

    Excitement rises.

    The reader continues. "But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."

    Punkin looks back at the reader. "A what?"

    "A revenger."

    "A revenger," Punkin repeats. He perks up, performs a simple hop-skip dance step, paces some more. Behind him, a guitar riff ripples and drifts off into silence. A cymbal crashes, then echoes into stillness. Punkin's voice gains depth, rhythm. His words, singsong now, are interspersed with a sound—heh—that is half bark and half cough. It is his particular way of emphasizing his message. "You hear me good—heh. We better be scared of the terror."

    "Bring it on!" someone calls. "Yeah. Come on."

    Punkin hops on both feet. He holds his hand to his mouth and coughs. "Thank you, Jesus."

    "Come on. You got that right. Think about it," cries the chorus.

    Punkin wipes his face with a white handkerchief and executes another dance step. "I'm ready to go," he says. "I ain't afraid to die. Heh. Come on down." He walks up and down the steps that lead from the floor of the church to the stage. He's still talking about the higher power. "You gonna be judged for the deed that you've done," he warns. "Heh. We need to be ready to go." Suddenly, with a burst of enthusiasm, he runs off the stage, down the aisle, and back again, then sinks down on the steps as if he is short of breath. But his litany continues. "Bless Your holy name, Jesus. Satan's shedding big ole tears." He gets up and begins to pace again. The fire has not yet fully caught in the congregation.

    One woman claps a few times, waves her arms. The chorus continues, supporting Punkin's message. "Bless you. Come on. Praise the Lord," the people cry.

    "He said ask heh—and you shall receive," says Punkin. "He said seek and ye shall find." He hops on two feet. His shirt is soaked with sweat. His face gleams. "You people know I'm going to a better place." A rattle sounds as if to emphasize his words. "If the Lord didn't visit you, you wouldn't be here."

    "Amen," says the chorus. "Think about it."

    "You can't have Jesus—heh—and hold on to the world." Punkin points to the snake boxes. "When they go in this box and get bit, they got a good excuse. No matter how much they ridiculed the apostles—heh—they kept right on preaching."

    Now, the people are beginning to feel the spirit. Some yell. Some stand and wave their arms, then sit down again. Punkin sinks again on the bench in front of the pulpit, as if his legs will no longer support him. Again, he swipes the handkerchief across his forehead. But just when he seems to be losing momentum, he rushes to the snake box and pulls out a thick, yellow timber rattler three or four feet long. The snake arches and coils in his hand, and the congregation comes to attention. Mothers call their children from the front rows and send them to the back of the church. A few women rush outside with their babies.

    "If they don't bite," says Punkin, "ain't no need to be scared." Holding the snake aloft, he circles behind the pulpit, hurries down the stairs on the left, crosses in front of the pulpit, rushes up the stairs on the right, then skips behind the pulpit again. The microphone is in his right hand, the rattler in the left. On the return circuit, he swings the serpent high in the air, and the snake swiftly coils back toward the hand that holds it. This seems to be the moment of the strike. Punkin barely flinches. Few notice that he has been bitten. Punkin looks at his hand briefly and continues to preach. "God don't ever change," he says. "It's gonna be all right."

    But something has changed in Punkin. Suddenly, he seems stunned, though he continues to proclaim: "No matter what comes, God's still God." He quickly hands the snake off to Gene Sherbert, a handler from Georgia, who stuffs it back into its box. Punkin walks behind the pulpit, circles back to the steps, and again glances at his right hand. He staggers, turns pale, then raises his arms. A man on the stage rushes toward Punkin, begins to rub his neck and back, and spouts a wild litany of indecipherable wails. Punkin stumbles down the steps and collapses. The men gathered at the altar support him for a moment, then clear a space on the floor to lay him down. They fall to their knees and crowd around him, praying, shaking, and speaking in tongues.

    "Jesus, have your way!" someone shouts.

    "Right now, God! Right now, Jesus!" a man cries. "Help my brother right now. I'll glorify You. I'll praise You for it."

    Children are crying, women screaming. Now, there is total chaos in the church. Women run back and forth from the bathroom, bringing wet paper towels, an electric fan. Some stand over Punkin waving makeshift paper fans, moaning, and praying. People bend forward to lay hands on him. "Jesus, Jesus, have your way," somebody calls. One woman claps her hands as if to get someone's attention—maybe Punkin's, maybe to help keep him conscious. When asked if he wants medical help, Punkin manages to point toward the ceiling, meaning that he will depend on the Lord to save him.

    "Praise His name," cries Billy Summerford, a voice of authority in the confusion. "Everybody keep your mind on the Lord."

    The young woman who earlier sang at the pulpit wanders up and down the aisle in shock, wringing her hands and crying, "Jeeee-sus. Jeeee-sus. Jeeee-sus."

    Children are weeping inconsolably now. Some are removed from the church by their mothers. A few people hurry out in distress. Near Punkin's outstretched body, a woman swoons. Others rush to hold her up. One man gets down on his knees, stretches out his arms, and puts his face to the floor in a supplicating position. A woman speaks in tongues. Jamie Coots makes an effort to lift Punkin, then gives up and lays him down again.

    Now, the woman walking the aisle picks up her child and continues her lament as he sleeps against her shoulder, unaware of the confusion around him. "Jesus. Jesus. Jesus."

    All is bedlam, despair. Above the din, there is a long, drawn-out cry, a wail that floats above the room like a dirge. Then, over the noise, a loud entreaty: "Praise His name."

    The group around Punkin grows quiet. They hold hands and sway together. Then Billy Summerford steps onto the stage and picks up his snake boxes. Gene Sherbert takes his box out, too, as if to say that it is all over. A small girl walks toward the back of the church crying and wiping her eyes on the long collar of her white sailor dress.

    And then, suddenly, the video camera goes blank.

    Punkin Brown has gone to meet his maker.


    In his official statement to Scottsboro district attorney Charlie Rhodes, Jim Grigg, coroner in the Jackson County, Alabama, Department of Forensic Sciences, reports that John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, Jr., was transported on October 3, 1998, from the Rock House Holiness Church of God to Jackson County Hospital in Scottsboro, where he was pronounced dead at 11:12 P.M. Central Standard Time.

    Five minutes. That's how long it took Punkin Brown to die. It was his twenty. third snakebite, a bite much less serious than others he had suffered in his seventeen-year serpent-handling career.

    The Brown family is reluctant to agree that the bite was what killed their beloved child and brother, even though Punkin had often said he would be happy to die with a snake in his hand. No other family member was in attendance at the Rock House Holiness Church of God that night, but Punkin's father, John, and his brother, Mark, have studied the video taken by the camera set up in the church. Mark comments that in the video, you can see Punkin holding the microphone in one hand and the snake in the other. "It [the rattler] is sticking out. You just see Punkin [jerk his hand]. Then he comes back around in front of the pulpit again, and when he comes back, Gene gets [the snake] from him and puts it up. I don't think it got a good bite on him."

    Carl Porter, the Georgia evangelist who eulogized Punkin's wife, Melinda, when she died three years earlier, says that in all his years of handling snakes in church services, he has never seen anyone die so quickly from a bite. "No one has ever known anything like this. It was just unusual."

    Punkin's mother, Peggy Brown, agrees, although she has not been able to gather the strength to look at the video. But when she saw her son's body, she, too, was not convinced that the bite was what killed him. "It was like it scratched him. It wasn't bad. His right arm was swelled so he couldn't hardly meet the buttons in his cuff. The left one [the side that was bitten] was fine."

    Mark adds another strange piece of evidence. "The right side of his face was hard, and the left side was soft. The last thing he said was, `No matter what happens, God is still God.' He walked behind the pulpit and never said no more after that."

    "That's why we can't believe," Peggy explains. "I wouldn't even say [it was] a bite, 'cause [the snake] didn't bite. It hit him. That's why we just cannot believe that's what did it. It was too fast. I've seen ones that they have had to pull off."

    Punkin's father joins in. "I had one to bite me [on the finger] with one fang. [For] about fourteen hours, my arm was [swollen] up like this."

    "John was black from his neck all over," adds Peggy.

    "I was swelled all the way down in here," affirms John, rubbing his hand from chest to groin. He was sick for nine days.

    The Browns believe a heart attack killed their son. The family and close friends had often seen him clutch his chest in pain or swell up with fluid, but no one could convince him to seek medical help.

    Yet there is evidence that the rattler sank its fangs into Punkin's left middle finger. The Alabama state medical examiner's conclusion that snakebite was the cause of death comes as a disappointment to the family members, who want Punkin to have enjoyed victory over the serpent. Still, they all agree that when it is your time to go, God takes you home, no matter the form in which death arrives.

    "The preliminary report turned out inconclusive," says coroner Grigg after Dr. Stephen Pustilnik's autopsy on Punkin the Monday following his death.

    Pustilnik's findings indicate that Punkin suffered from arterial sclerosis and an enlarged heart, possibly caused by hypertension, but that neither would have caused death. "Brown did not die of a heart attack," Pustilnik emphasizes.

    Jim Grigg expresses a commonly held conception about snakebites. "If you have been bitten twenty-two times by venomous snakes, you should be fairly immune," says Grigg. "I have been a coroner for sixteen years, and this is the first death [of its kind] I've seen since I became coroner."

    However, Pustilnik disagrees with Grigg's theory about venom immunity. He says that instead of setting up an immunity to the venom, Punkin probably had a sensitivity to it, and that it would likely have taken less venom to kill him than it would a person who had not previously suffered a bite.

    During his seventeen-year career in the serpent-handling church, Punkin Brown handled more snakes than most people care to think about, including puff adders, Southern copperheads, Western diamondbacks, Eastern diamondbacks, timber rattlers, canebrake rattlers, cottonmouth moccasins, pygmy rattlers, tiger rattlers, rock rattlers, Great Basin rattlers, Mojave rattlers, sidewinders, and assorted cobras. And with twenty-two previous bites recorded, perhaps Punkin's system was indeed sensitive to venom.

    Stephen Pustilnik feels that even though Punkin had an enlarged heart, the snakebite was certainly the catalyst that triggered his collapse and therefore must be considered the official cause of death. Although he did not test for snake venom in the autopsy, he says that the video of the bite proves that it was the cause.

    There were, he claims, many factors that contributed to the death. "It was the combination of his active mode when he was preaching. His heart rate was up, and the heart was enlarged and it takes years for the heart to get enlarged. He probably had hypertension, which is the most common cause of heart enlargement. At that point, he was undoubtedly pumping the dose of venom around in his body. He was preaching, and the [excitement] allowed the toxin to reach his heart very quickly. He was definitely bitten by the snake. His finger was hemorrhagic. There looked to be puncture wounds. It was probably a combination of the two [the enlarged heart and the bite]. If the venom was not a lethal dose, it probably started an aberrant electrical activity of the heart. If it was a lethal dose, then that is what did it. The snakebite is what decided his final demise. The fingers have marvelous veins and arteries on either side—digital arteries and digital nerves. If the fang gets into one of those nice vessels, [the venom] has a free highway into the circulatory system. The fingers are very vascular. The enzymes in the venom help destroy the flexor tendon or extender tendons.

    "It's just a combination of stuff. The snake was especially agitated. If it squirted [released its venom], he got a larger dose. It could have hit one of the vessels in the finger and [been given] free access to the heart. Maybe his heart got to be larger over the years, and that combination—with the jumping around and with the snakebite—might have caused an increased cardiac demand and required increased blood flow to his heart and body and [sent] the heart rate up."

    The official amended autopsy report signed by Pustilnik on October 5, 1998, reads as follows: "Decedent John Wayne Brown, age 34, race W, sex M, length 69 in., weight 223 lbs. Autopsy Findings: I. Puncture wounds on left third finger with soft tissue hematoma of the left third finger. II. Visceral congestion. III. Cardiomegaly (500 grams). IV. Bilateral pulmonary consolidation. V. Cerebral edema, mild (1450 grams). Cause of Death: Snake bite to hand. Contributory Cause: Hypertensive cardiovascular disease. Manner of Death: Accident."

    The report concludes, "The postmortem examination demonstrated apparent puncture wounds on the left third finger associated with soft tissue hematoma of the left third finger. An abrasion on the dorsum of the left hand was suspicious for a bite mark without evidence of puncture wounds in that area. Also identified was cardiomegaly with mild atherosclerosis. Also identified was bilateral pulmonary consolidation and mild cerebral edema. Visceral congestion was also seen. Toxicology demonstrates no arsenic, strychnine, lead or mercury."

    Punkin Brown's family wants to know why a test for venom in his system was not administered, but Dr. Pustilnik and the district attorney are satisfied with the official findings. "An enlarged heart is an unstable heart," says Pustilnik, "and [Punkin's] was a significantly enlarged heart. Not just a little bit large, a lot. Oh yeah, on the way to serious trouble."

    Punkin's earthly troubles ended that night on Sand Mountain, but Peggy and John Brown's continue. The day before Punkin's funeral, his children are removed from their paternal grandparents' home by a Cocke County juvenile-court judge and given into the temporary custody of Melinda Brown's mother, Frances Goswick of Plainville, Georgia. Within a few brief days, the Browns thus lose both their son and the five grandchildren who have lived with them most of the time since the death of their mother three years earlier. At first, funeral arrangements keep them occupied, but the judge's decision represents another enormous loss to a family that has suffered more than its fair share of grief.

    Punkin's parents choose to bury their son at Carson Springs, the site of the church to which Peggy and John first took their seven-year-old boy. Peggy recalls that by the time Punkin was twelve, he would curl his hands in excitement when he watched members handle serpents.

    It is the site of the church of famous serpent-handling preacher Charles Prince, though it came to be known by a different name after Prince's death, The church building is no longer there, having been destroyed by fire years back, but the spot is a peaceful, quiet place. Punkin Brown will be buried there in the Holiness Church of God in Jesus' Name Cemetery beside his wife, Melinda, on a high ridge that looks down into a quiet valley. After three years of turmoil during which he lost his wife, struggled with severe financial problems when he was denied disability payments for his work-related back injury, and was the victim of vicious gossip in the serpent-handling community, Punkin Brown will finally be at rest.


    On a cold October morning in 1998, John and Peggy Brown prepare to bury their firstborn son. Rain sweeps in early, a cold, windy onslaught that hints at the approach of winter. The skies seem to be weeping for Punkin Brown, a man who lived by the faith and died by the faith. The mourners include friends and members of churches in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia.

    Punkin's five children—Jonathan, age twelve; twins Jacob and Jeremiah, seven; Sarah, five; and Daniel, four—attend the funeral-home service in Newport, Tennessee, and are then taken back to Parrottsville by their grandmother Peggy Brown. Before they leave, John Brown takes their hands and leads them to Punkin's silver casket, where he lifts them up so that they can kiss or caress their father. Then, after patting his son's arm, John Brown looks down at Punkin for the last time, turns slowly, and walks to his wife's side.

    Peggy Brown spends a few final minutes alone with Punkin, leaning over the casket, sobbing. Tenderly, she cups his face in her hands and kisses his forehead. He is her baby, her first child, born when she was only sixteen years old.

    The mourners who have filled the chapel to overflowing touch Punkin's body and weep as they file past the satin-lined casket. Propped on either side of Punkin's head are two black-and-white photographs of him handling serpents.

    The chapel service is simple, consisting of only two songs and a brief eulogy listing the family's names. No serpents are handled at the funeral home.

    The cemetery is located on a steep hill between the prongs of a V-shaped road. There is only one road leading into the hollow below the ridge, and on the day of the funeral, it is mired in mud. The hearse carrying Punkin's body slips and swerves as it makes its way cautiously up the grade to the burial site.

    Once the mourners have gathered, several pull rattlesnakes from boxes placed on the vault and begin to sing and pray. Some hold them close to their faces, as if searching for an answer to the tragedy in the serpents' slitted eyes. Some rub the serpents' heads with open palms as rain slashes down.

    Lydia Elkins Hollins, from the well-known church in Jolo, West Virginia, cradles a large black timber rattler in her arms as if she is rocking a baby. Covered with the spirit, she begins to dance in the rain and to speak in tongues.

    Mark Brown picks up a rattler as the hundred or more people begin to sing "Lord, Have Your Way."

    Then John Brown raises his arms toward the emptying heavens and walks toward the snake boxes. He hoists a large rattler up to eye level, then raises it above his head. As he returns to the protection of the green tent covering the grave, he stares out across the closed casket. What he sees there, only he knows, but his face is etched in anguish.

    Jamie Coots, minister of the church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, where Punkin's wife was bitten in 1995, shouts into the wind, "He's not laying there. He has done gone on to meet God, and you need to rejoice. Brother Punkin was a hard man who didn't compromise. He was going Saturday night, whether he was right or whether he was wrong."

    Many of the ministers gathered at the grave echo the church's belief that Punkin died that Saturday night in Alabama because it was his appointed time to go. "I believe we were predestined before the foundation of this world," proclaims Carl Porter. "I believe God knew us before this world was ever born. It was Punkin's time to go. He was really looking forward to [this] day."

    "This wasn't a test of faith," adds Jimmy Morrow, minister of a serpent-handling church in Del Rio, Tennessee. "This is our faith."

    The Reverend Billy Summerford, minister of the church where Punkin was fatally bitten, assures those gathered that Punkin has crossed over: "He is walking on streets of gold. Punkin Brown and I walked a lot of miles together. We got a lot of other preachers here today, but we are going to miss him, because he was always there for us."

    At the end of the burial service, John Brown asks the gathering to pray for his five grandchildren. "Remember Punkin's children," he says. "Keep fasting and praying. There is nothing too great or too small for God to do."

    And then a great chorus of mingled voices rises in the hollow, and Punkin Brown is left to make his way into the next world.

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Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book a few years ago.I have read other things and have watched documentries on this subject.This to me is the best book that i have read on this subject because it takes no side and lets the saints tell there story and there beleifs .The authors of this book should be credited for stepping out of the way and letting the saints tell there beleifs.If there is one thing you could read concerning serpent handling churches and beleivers i beleive this is the book.great book
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was very pleased with this book. The authors, by frequently using their subjects own words, created a touching glimpse into the personal lives of three families from three different states. I found myself really identifying with the subjects.