Snake-handling preacher bitten, dies; no hospitals for him, son says

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

Snake-handling preacher Jamie Coots has died of snakebite.

In some readings of the Bible, faith is stronger than venom. “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you,” Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel of Luke.

The Kentucky preacher lived by this belief and, in the view of emergency responders, he died by it too, when a snake bit him at church.

[Updated, 9:06 a.m. PST Feb. 17: “If he had lived and woke up in a hospital bed, he would have blamed every one of us,” his son Cody Coots told Knoxville’s WVLT-TV. He said his father was a “firm believer” who would not go to a hospital. He said his father told him, “You get bit, you either die at home or God brings you through.”]


Coots -- a 42-year-old Pentecostal preacher and a family man who had photos of his granddaughter posted on Facebook -- was known both in Middlesboro, Ky., and farther afield for his beliefs about snake handling and healing.

He had recently been featured on the National Geographic reality show “Snake Salvation.” In October, he wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal decrying a Kentucky law that forbids the handling of snakes in religious ceremonies. In 2008, Coots was arrested for breaking that law, and was sentenced to a year of probation for driving through Tennessee with snakes.

Coots had long known the costs of his faith. In December 1998, he has said, a snake bit him in the middle finger of his right hand. His arm swelled up and eventually his finger partially rotted away until bone was exposed.

He refused to have a doctor cut the finger off; it fell off on its own, and his family stored it in a jar inside their house.

“I always said I wouldn’t never go to a hospital for a bite. I said, ‘Lord, if I ever go to a hospital, I’ll quit handling [snakes],’ ” Coots said in a 2000 book about religious serpent handlers, which told the story of his bitten finger. “If I go to the hospital, I still have to fight that battle of the devil telling me, ‘You said you would never go, [and] here you went.’ ”

Coots had been bitten at least eight times in his life, his son Cody told WBIR, and suffered his final snakebite Saturday at church.

Someone called emergency responders, who arrived to find that Coots had gone home. They went to Coots’ home, where he refused treatment, officials said, so they left.

Less than an hour later, they returned, and Coots was dead.

“We’re going to go home, he’s going to lay on the couch, he’s going to hurt, he’s going to pray for a while and he’s going to get better. That’s what happened every other time, except this time was just so quick and it was crazy, it was really crazy,” Cody Coots told WBIR-TV.

Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told the Los Angeles Times that Coots was apparently holding multiple snakes when one of them, a rattlesnake, bit the preacher.

“You got to understand that everybody involved in this is well aware of what they’re doing,” Sharpe told The Times. “They’re not ignorant. They’re intelligent people. They just have a faith in this one area that a lot of us don’t share.

“But they believe it, they know the dangers, they know what they’re handling, and obviously any time we get a report that anybody is injured or bitten we’re going to offer our services. But if they decline, it’s something we can’t force.”

Coots’ views aren’t too common in rural Bell County, Sharpe said, although a woman died about 10 years ago after a bite at a church in the county.

Sharpe added that he personally believes Kentucky’s anti-snake-handling law violates the 1st Amendment, so the chief chooses not to enforce the statute if the snake handlers aren’t endangering anyone else.

“I think he’s a real good fellow,” Sharpe said of Coots. “I don’t believe what he believes … but you just got to have a lot of respect that he has that kind of faith and sticks to it. … He made it very clear that if he got bitten again he did not want to be treated.”

In a Facebook post celebrating his 41st birthday in November 2012, Coots wrote of having “a wife who loves me unconditionally, two wonderful children, a daughter-in-law that loves and takes care of my son the way his mom takes care of me, a very beautiful granddaughter, I still have my dad with me who is such an inspiration, and a great host of church family and friends.”

Coots finished, “What a blessed birthday thank you Jesus for your blessings on me.”