Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

June 10, 2012

Former AP reporter wrote story about snake-handling death in 1961

PRINCETON — The death certificate for Pastor Mack Randall Wolford was filed in the Mercer County Clerk’s office Thursday afternoon, listing Wolford’s official cause of death as being “due to, or as a consequence of rattlesnake envenomation,” according to Wolford’s death certificate.

“The deceased was handling a timber rattlesnake due to a secular religion,” according to the death certificate. He received the bite at Panther State Park on Sunday, May 27, and was pronounced dead on arrival at Bluefield Regional Medical Center on May 28. Wolford was 44.

The facts surrounding Wolford’s death have brought renewed national and international interest to the long-time use of snake handling during religious services. Wolford was among the most open of the pastors who pointed to a Bible verse, Mark 16:18, as a call for people who shared their faith to pick up serpents. Unbeknownst to many of his neighbors, as well as people who lived near the church he pastored — The Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus — near Matoaka, he was the son of a pastor who had died in 1983 as a result of receiving a timber rattlesnake bite during a religious service.

“I thought the church up there was closed,” a Matoaka resident said as she watched Wolford’s funeral procession pass through town on its way to the Wolford family cemetery in Phelps, Ky. “I thought he was an old man until I saw his picture in the paper. I saw an old man outside the church one time, and thought he was the pastor.”

While snake-handling wasn’t new, Wolford’s death revealed that his openness to inviting journalists to attend services had spawned a following of outside reporters and photographers who wrote stories, took still photographs and posted videos of services where poisonous snakes were handled. It was journalistic ground that had been traversed before.

On Sept. 28, 1961, Burl Osborne, a Jenkins, Ky., native, Marshall University graduate and reporter in the Bluefield office of the associated Press, caught wind of a story involving the death of an attractive, 23-year-old divorcee, who died four days after being bit by a timber rattlesnake during a religious service in Jolo.

“The victim was Columbia Gay Chafins who resided at Paynesville near the West Virginia-Virginia line,” Osborne wrote. After a distinguished 20-year career with the AP, Osborne went to the Dallas Morning News, serving as executive editor, but ultimately advancing to the position of publisher and president. He served as chairman of the AP from 2002-’07.

“Mrs. Hagerman was bitten Sunday night at the Church in Jesus at the nearby town of Jolo. She was bitten by a yellow timber rattler on the right hand. She died at the home of her step-father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Elkins, without medical attention,” Osborne wrote.

According to the account of Hagerman’s death that Elkins shared with Osborne, her daughter walked through the house repeating “In the name of Jesus,” and even prayed with the family. “We feel when He don’t heal us, He has a better purpose,” Mrs. Elkins was quoted as stating in Osborne’s next-day story. “I could have got a doctor, but I know God is God.”

Osborne wrote: “Sunday night was the first time that Mrs. Hagerman, mother of a nine-year-old-daughter, had handled the snakes.” Osborne reported that he learned that Hagerman was the first death at the church in Jolo since it was established five years earlier. Mrs. Elkins told Osborne that she had been practicing the faith for 21 years.

Less than two weeks later, Osborne attended a snake-handling service at the church in Jolo and wrote about the experience in a column that was published in the Oct. 15, 1961 edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. He wrote about Mrs. Elkins testifying to the congregation that she would defy any law that might stop her from worshiping in the way she has been worshiping for 21 years.

The death of her daughter “brought promises of an anti-snake handling law from aroused members of the state legislature.” Osborne wrote: “Mrs. Elkins served notice that, ‘if they pass a law against handling snakes, we’ll handle them anyway.’”

Osborne described what happened during the service he attended. “The ritual is performed in a small frame building locked in the coal fields of southern West Virginia by rugged mountains and narrow, twisting roads. The people are as rugged as the mountains,” he observed.

Osborne changed his prose style from more elaborate descriptions to a staccato rhythm that matched the electric guitar and upright piano music he wrote about. “The toe-taping had become foot-stamping. The platform rocked,” he wrote. “The chanting grew into a fervent throbbing. The building rocked. Then, on the platform, two men, arms uplifted, eyes closed, expressions blank — started moving. Slowly at firs, then into a sort of convulsive dance to the beat of the music.

“One sipped from a jar of clear liquid. Their dance carried them nearer and neared the snake boxes. Three women had started to dance. A teenage girl, face flushed, but expressionless, joined them. One of the men — aged and graying — jerked” inside the box and pulled “out a rattlesnake by the tail. Then another. He swayed across the stage-like platform, fondling the serpents, wrapping them about his arms and neck.”

After he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marshall, Osborne accepted a job as reporter for WHTN-TV in Huntington from 1958-’60, until he accepted the position with the AP. The old AP office was located in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph on Bland Street in Bluefield.

In 1960, while most of the media in the state was following (then) U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy around during his bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Osborne went to Pound, Va., and tracked down the family of U-2 Pilot Frances Gary Powers who was shot down over Russia, paraded around as a spy by USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev and vilified at home because his countrymen believed he revealed secrets to the communists.

Osborne continued providing details about the service, its music and the defiance voiced by the leaders. He wrote about one member of the congregation who chose not to handle the snakes, but intoned her voice in an “unknown tongue,” he wrote in quotes.

The story that appeared in the newspaper included two pictures of people handling snakes during the service with the caption: “The above photos were shot by Burl Osborne, Associated Press correspondent who personally attended the service at the Jolo Church in Jesus to get a first-hand view of the proceedings.”

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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