Serpent-handling pastor dies after rattlesnake bite in W. Va.
A flamboyant, serpent-handling, Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia planned a "homecoming" for Sunday; things didn't work out as he had planned.
The Washington Post
A flamboyant Pentecostal pastor from West Virginia whose serpent-handling talents were profiled in The Washington Post in November, hoped the outdoor service he had planned for Sunday at an isolated state park would be a "homecoming like the old days," full of folks speaking in tongues, handling snakes and having a "great time." But it was not the sort of homecoming he foresaw.
Instead, Wolford, who had turned 44 the previous day, was bitten by a rattlesnake he had owned for years. He died hours later.
Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford was known across Appalachia as a daring man of conviction. He believed the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God — and that, if bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them.
The son of a serpent handler who also died, in 1983, after being bitten, Wolford was trying to keep the practice alive in West Virginia, where it is legal, and in neighboring states, where it is not. He was articulate, friendly and appreciative of media attention. Many serpent-handling Pentecostals retreat from journalists, but Wolford didn't. He would take them on snake-hunting expeditions.
Sunday's gathering started as a festive outdoor worship service at Panther Wildlife Management Area, a state park roughly 80 miles west of Bluefield, W.Va. Several teasers posted on Wolford's Facebook page encouraged people to attend.
"At one time or another, we had handled (snakes), but we had backslid," his sister, Robin Vanover, said late Monday. "His birthday was Saturday, and all he wanted to do is get his brothers and sisters in church together."
And so they were gathered at this evangelistic hootenanny of Christian praise and worship. About 30 minutes into the service, his sister said, Wolford had been passing a yellow timber rattlesnake to a church member and his mother.
"He laid it on the ground," Vanover said, "and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh."
Wolford was taken to a relative's house in Bluefield to recover, as he always had when suffering from previous snake bites.
But Wolford's condition worsened progressively. Paramedics transported him to a Bluefield hospital, where he was pronounced dead early Monday. It could not be determined when the paramedics were called.
Wolford was 15 when he saw his father die at age 39 of a rattlesnake bite in almost exactly the same circumstances.
"He lived 10 ½ hours," Wolford said last fall. "When he got bit, he said he wanted to die in the church. Three hours after he was bitten, his kidneys shut down. After a while, your heart stops. I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in."
Lauren Pond, 26, a freelance photographer who had been photographing serpent handlers in the area for more than a year, including for The Post, witnessed the younger Wolford's death.
"He helped me to understand the faith instead of just documenting it," she said Tuesday. "He was one of the most open pastors I've ever met. He was a friend and a teacher."
The family allowed her to stay near Wolford's side Sunday night. "I didn't see the bite," she said. "I saw the aftermath."
In a Post interview for last year's story, Jim Murphy, curator of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., described what happens when a rattlesnake bites.
The pain is "excruciating" when there is a bite, he said. "The venom attacks the nervous system. It's vicious and gruesome when it hits."
Yet Mack Wolford refused to fear the creatures. He slung poisonous snakes around his neck, danced with them, even lay down on or near them. He displayed spots on his right hand where copperheads had sunk their fangs. His Bluefield home had a spare bedroom filled with at least eight venomous snakes: usually rattlers, water moccasins and copperheads. He was passionate about wanting to help churches in nearby states — including North Carolina and Tennessee, where the practice is illegal — start their own serpent-handling services.
"I promised the Lord I'd do everything in my power to keep the faith going," he said in October. "I spend a lot of time going a lot of places that handle serpents to keep them motivated. I'm trying to get anybody I can get involved."
His funeral is scheduled Saturday at his church, House of the Lord Jesus, in Matoaka, just north of Bluefield.