When fundamentalist preacher Jamie Coots died after handling a snake during a church service four years ago, it led to a flurry of news reports about the circumstances surrounding his death and why he would hold a serpent to show religious faith.
But little was said about where Coots got the timber rattler that killed him or the collection of other snakes kept at Coots’ church in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
It turns out that Coots bought some of his snakes in South Carolina, one of the few states with virtually no restrictions on the sale of venomous serpents.
South Carolina has, through the years, provided snakes that serpent-handling preachers use at Sunday services because the Palmetto State, unlike many jurisdictions, doesn’t limit the sale of venomous snakes, state officials in South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky say.
Snake-handling preachers, or anyone else, can walk up to a table at a wildlife show in South Carolina and purchase a poison-fanged snake with no trouble, state officials say. S.C. investigators say they’ve seen it happen.
“I’ve witnessed them buying, selling or taking them out’’ on several occasions from major reptile shows in Columbia, said one investigator who asked for anonymity because he works undercover enforcing wildlife laws.
Some people say South Carolina should tighten regulation of venomous snake sales to protect the public, but to some churchgoers, that would be a shame.
Coots’ aunt, Kathy Greene of Middlesboro, Ky., said her church needs venomous snakes to practice its religious beliefs.
“It does show faith,’’ Greene said. “It shows when you are really close to God and prayed up and reading your Bible, you can pretty much do anything you’ve asked him to do.’’
Greene wasn’t sure where the snake came from that killed her nephew. But journalist and author Julia Duin, who recently completed a book on snake-handling churches, said Coots bought many of his snakes from South Carolina until early 2013. Coots died in 2014.
Jimmy Morrow, a snake-handling preacher from Tennessee, said that while he prefers to catch his own serpents, wildlife shows in South Carolina provide a service to the religious community.
“Some people like dogs, some people like cats and some people like snakes,’’ Morrow said. “A lot of people use them in their religious services. If you want something and you ain’t endangering nobody with it, it’s a good thing.’’
Lt. Ray Lawson, an officer with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said some preachers figure it’s less trouble to buy venomous snakes in South Carolina than to try and catch them in Kentucky, where restrictions are tougher. Ministers also like the more colorful varieties of venomous South Carolina snakes, he said.
“Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, Southern copperheads – I’ve also caught them with exotics’’ from other countries, Lawson said.
Repticon, which puts on wildlife exhibitions across the country, holds one of the largest shows in the region in Columbia, which investigators say sometimes attracts snake-handling preachers and their followers. Spokespeople from Repticon did not respond to questions from The State newspaper.
Snakes sold in South Carolina to Appalachian ministers service a tradition that some preachers say goes back hundreds of years. But the modern-day snake-handling movement emerged early in the 20th century in the mountains and foothills of the Southeast, say theologians and ministers.
Relying on a passage in the Bible that says “they shall take up serpents,’’ ministers said they were using the snakes to show their faith in God. Many of the snake-handling churches were in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, deep in Appalachia, but some also operated in the Carolinas. At one point, preachers in Greenville and Rock Hill handled snakes, Morrow said.
At a service that involves snakes, ministers and worshipers who feel called by God to pick up serpents hold the reptiles as they preach, sing, pray or dance. Ministers caution against holding snakes to show off. A person must be called by God to handle a snake, ministers and theologians say.
When people escape snakebites, it shows that God has given the churchgoers “a victory’’ from harm.
Morrow, who pastors a church in Newport, Tenn., said he’s held thousands of snakes during the past 40 years while ministering to his congregation. Most of those are rattlesnakes and copperheads, but he’s sometimes given sermons while holding exotic snakes, such as cobras and Asian vipers, he said.
Morrow and Greene, who attend different churches, said the joys of holding a snake at a Sunday service are immeasurable.
Once, Greene said, she prayed that God would let her wrap a snake around her neck without being bitten. It didn’t bite her, even as she danced around with the serpent, she said.
The 63-year-old Morrow, who began handling snakes when he was 23, said he’s been bitten twice over the years. But it’s a great feeling to handle a snake and survive in the name of God, he said.
“It feels just like somebody pouring a warm bucket of water over you,’’ Morrow said. “You can feel it from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Then all the fear leaves your body.’’
The practice of handling snakes has waned since the early 1900s, but still goes on in pockets of Appalachia, said Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee-Chattanooga professor who is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on snake-handling churches.
Today, about 125 churches, many of them small, still practice serpent-handling, he said.
“It’s waxing down, but there is a new generation coming up from people who were raised in the tradition,’’ Hood said. “I think it will emerge again. What it takes is a culture that supports it, which the Appalachian mountains do, and it takes young people to carry on the tradition. The young people . . . tend to intermarry with serpent-handling families, and it grows from within.’’
Among the younger generation were Coots and Andrew Hamblin, a Tennessee minister who learned the ropes of snake-handling from the Coots family.
Through the years, media accounts have shown that Coots sometimes relied on South Carolina or Alabama to supply venomous snakes for his church. South Carolina has virtually no restrictions on the sale of venomous snakes, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources says. Alabama also allows it if the snakes are captive-bred, said Carrie Threadgill, a biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Coots was shown on an episode of National Geographic’s “Snake Salvation’’ television show going to a Repticon wildlife event in North Charleston several years ago. Coots said he was going to the South Carolina event to get “17 big snakes.’’
“Jamie has built up trading partners over years of coming to the snake show,’’ according to the "Snake Salvation" episode’s narrator.
Hamblin, from Lafollette, Tenn., tried to buy venomous snakes, offering one vendor $75 for two poisonous serpents.
“We’ve come here for one reason,’’ Hamblin said. “That one reason is wherever the venomous is.’’
He was turned down by the salesman from Ophidian’s Lair, a company from Myrtle Beach and Shallotte, N.C., that sells venomous snakes.
Efforts to reach salesmen for Ophidian’s Lair were unsuccessful. The website for Ophidian’s Lair is today offering venomous exotic snakes for sale. Those include Gaboon vipers, monocled cobras and Ethiopian mountain adders, some of the most dangerous snakes in the world.
Hamblin was not available for comment. His grandmother, Alffie Bowman, said Hamblin prefers not to talk about his interest in snake-handling these days. She said handling snakes isn’t for her -- but she respects her grandson’s faith. She said he is still ministering in the southeast.
“He’s still kicking,’’ she said. “He’s still a pastor.’’
Despite the desire to use venomous snakes in church services, not everyone is comfortable with serpent-handling preachers — or anyone else — getting their reptiles in South Carolina. Handling snakes at church services can be fatal to worshipers and allowing unrestricted sales of venomous snakes attracts people to South Carolina with criminal records, critics say.
In one recent case, a Florida man with a history of arrests for wildlife trafficking legally imported more than 200 highly venomous snakes through the Atlanta airport, but was not allowed to keep them in Georgia. His state import permit required him to haul the deadly serpents to South Carolina within 24 hours.
James L. Farmer, who for years ran an Oconee County reptile exhibit that featured venomous snakes, said he doesn’t want an outright ban on venomous snake ownership because many people are responsible owners. But others are not. That's why he could back some state oversight of deadly serpents in South Carolina.
“There are people that have no business keeping venomous reptiles,’’ Farmer said. “People need to know what they are doing. I’d support the state controlling this at some point.’’
Repticon's website urges vendors at its shows to use discretion in selling venomous snakes. It also tells vendors not to give customers venomous snakes they purchase until the customers are leaving the show for the day. Repticon requires vendors to cover venomous snakes with netting if the animals are not kept in display cases, according to the company's website.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources says South Carolina is one of only a few states that have virtually no restrictions on reptile ownership or sales, most notably for venomous snakes. As a result, sales that would not be legal in other states are within the law in South Carolina.
Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky all require some form of permitting to own, buy or sell different types of venomous snakes, with Florida having the most stringent rules. Some local jurisdictions in South Carolina, such as the city of Columbia, do not allow venomous snake sales. But not all local governments do that. Lexington County, for instance, allows venomous snake sales at reptile shows.
S.C. state Sen. Thomas McElveen, who serves on a legislative wildlife committee, said the lack of oversight of venomous snake-handling practices may need review by the S.C. General Assembly next year.
“I don’t know much about their rituals or services,’’ McElveen, D-Sumter, said of snake-handling churches. “But I think we should look at this on a global scale. Is this good policy or not? It doesn’t matter who is buying them or not buying them. It’s something worth talking about.’’