Pastor Jamie Coots, a 42-year-old Pentecostal preacher and third-generation snake handler from Middlesboro, Ky., spoke to NPR in October about his unusual way of leading church services.
"We sing, we preach, we testify, take up offerings, pray for the sick, you know, everything like everybody else does," he said. "Just, every once in a while, snakes are handled."
On Saturday night, Coots was handling three rattlesnakes at his small church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, when one of them bit him on his right hand.
He lost consciousness and was taken home, where his family refused anti-venom treatment by an emergency medical crew. Jamie Coots was pronounced dead about two hours after the bite.
In his interview with NPR, Coots said he had been bitten nine times in 22 years, and each time he recovered — he believed — through the power of his faith.
"I enjoyed the feeling that moved on me to take up the serpent," Coots said. "Handling the snake, it's indescribable. You have a peace to know that you're holding something in your hand that could kill you. And yet, you have no fear of it."
Death from religious snake handling is not unheard of. In 1995, a woman was bit in Coots' church; she refused to go to the hospital and died on Coots' couch while church members prayed over her.
Though snake handling is a misdemeanor offense in most states where it's practiced, authorities rarely enforce it out of respect for religious liberty. There are an estimated 125 snake-handling congregations scattered across Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Appalachia — where the tradition is strongest.
There are the five signs often practiced in snake-handling churches, including the sipping of poison such as strychnine or lye, as a test of faith.
Coots continued to handle reptiles, even though he was arrested in 2008 by Kentucky wildlife authorities for trafficking in illegal snakes. He later obtained permits.
He kept about 30 rattlers and copperheads in glass cages in a shed behind his house in Middlesboro.
Coots was known throughout the normally publicity-shy snake-handling community as someone who wanted to educate the outside world about its practices, and who was fearless in his faith. As well as speaking to NPR, Coots was featured in a National Geographic reality TV show last fall called Snake Salvation.
"I just like handling really, really big snakes," he said, adding that he had his favorites.
"Well, the black timber rattler I just love," he said. "Some of the black timber rattlers, their head just look, like, velvety. It's such a shiny black."
His son, Cody Coots, who is also a snake handler in church, told a local newspaper that the snake that gave his father the fatal bite was a 2-and-a-half-foot timber rattler.
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