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Snake-handling preacher dies of bite

Last updated: 3:40 PM, 03/26/2009
 


Source: The Newport Plain Talk

During a church service on Sand Mountain, in Jackson County, Alabama, Saturday night, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown died within an hour of being bitten by one of the rattlesnakes he so often used to demonstrate his religious faith.

Brown, 34, of Parrottsville, died as he lived, in the faith, reportedly refusing medical treatment after collapsing on the floor of the church just minutes after the three-foot-long yellow timber rattler bit him on the finger.

"Witnesses said he had been handling the snake for about five minutes before he was bitten. They said he put the snake back in the box and, sometime in the next three to four minutes, he went down," said Jackson County Sheriff's Investigator Chuck Phillips. "About 45 minutes passed before anyone called the ambulance. According to witnesses, he refused medical treatment, which is common in this religion."

Phillips said an ambulance was called only after Brown stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating. He said church members performed CPR on Brown until the ambulance arrived, but to no avail.

Brown was pronounced dead at Jackson County Hospital, in Scottsboro, Alabama, about 10 miles from the Rock House Holiness Church, on Sand Mountain, where the incident occurred.

Brown was "legendary" among members of the snake-handling faith, which finds its roots in Southern and Central Appalachia. Snake-handling is a demonstration of faith based on a passage from the book of Mark in the New Testament. The verse says believers "shall take up serpents, and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."

Phillips said Brown was an "evangelist-type, who preached throughout the South," often with a rattlesnake draped over his shoulder.

"Brown was preaching at the Rock House church in what we call the Macedonia Community," said Phillips.

Phillips said the church, presided over by Rev. Billy Summerford, is the only church in the community that he knows of which practices snake-handling.

"We have a lot of holiness churches, but this is the only one we know about," said Brown. "There might be another that we just don't knowabout."

Brown had reportedly been bitten 22 times since he first started handling snakes at age 17, having grown up with the religious practice.

Strong in his faith, Brown continued to preach, demonstrating his faith by handling poisonous snakes, even after the death of his wife, Melinda, in 1995 from a rattlesnake bite.

Melinda was bitten by a timber rattlesnake during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky.

Brown retained custody of the couple's five children after a custody battle with his wife's family in Cocke County Juvenile Court.

The children live with their grandparents, John and Peggy Brown, in Parrottsville. Brown's father is also a snake-handling minister, who presides over his own church in Marshall, North Carolina.

A new hearing concerning Brown's children will be held Wednesday in Cocke County Juvenile Court.

Jackson County Coroner Jim Grigg said Brown was bitten on the left hand between the knuckle and the first joint of the middle finger, punctured by only one fang.

Because Brown had been bitten so many times before, speculation has arisen that perhaps Brown did not die from the snake bite, but from some other physical condition.

Grigg, who ordered an autopsy performed on Brown's body, said the fact that Brown had been bitten numerous times does not necessarily mean he had built up any type immunity to snake bites.

"Dr. Stephen Tustilnik, of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, who is a forensic pathologist, said just the opposite could be true," said Grigg. "He could have built up a sensitivity to the venom rather than an immunity."

He said there are documented cases of people developing a sensitivity to bee stings. He said they can go for years and never feel any ill effects from stings and suddenly become violently ill after a sting. He said Tustilnik said this could be the same type of phenomenon.

"That's just his opinion," said Grigg. "We won't know anything for awhile, not until the lab results are in."

Grigg said the autopsy is in the toxicology stage and, because the laboratory stays back-logged, it could take as long as three months before the results are available.

"The preliminary autopsy, which is a visual study of the organs, revealed no indication of thrombosis or aneurysm," said Grigg. "There was evidence of some minor arterial schlorotic conditions [hardening of the arteries], but not enough to be deemed the cause of death."

Grigg said the hardening of the arteries is unusual for a man of Brown's age. Brown also had a large heart and signs of a hypertensive heart, but none of these conditions seemed to be life-threatening, at least from a visual examination of the body, he said.

"We'll know a lot more once we get the toxicology report back from the lab," said Grigg.

Phillips said the sheriff's department confiscated a video tape of the incident which had been made by someone at the service.

"No charges have been filed and we have no intention at this time of pursuing the matter further," said Phillips. "There's no law in Alabama against handling snakes in church."

Funeral services for Brown will be held Thursday at 10 a.m. Thursday, at the Manes Funeral Home Chapel followed by burial in the Holiness Church of God in Jesus Name Cemetery in Carson Springs.

1998 The Newport Plain Talk

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