Timber rattler bites, kills snake-handling preacher
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Southern West Virginia snake-handling preacher who watched his father die of a snakebite as a teenager suffered the same fate over the weekend.
Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford, 44, had organized a Memorial Day gathering for followers of his faith and anyone else interested at Panther State Forest in McDowell County.
Wolford conducted a similar service last year at the park, said documentary filmmaker Kate Fowler, who is working on a film about Wolford.
Wolford previously had told Fowler he knew he could die from a snakebite, but news of his death Monday still came as a surprise.
"Honestly, him being bitten is shocking," she said in a phone interview.
His sister told The Washington Post that he passed a yellow timber rattler to a church member and his mother about 30 minutes into the service.
"He laid it on the ground," she told the newspaper, "and he sat down next to the snake, and it bit him on the thigh."
A nursing supervisor at Bluefield Regional Medical Center said Wolford, leader of House of the Lord Jesus church in Matoaka, came to the hospital about 10:30 p.m. Sunday with a snakebite.
The bite had occurred hours earlier, about 2 p.m., the supervisor said.
"He was a snake handler," the supervisor said. "It looked like it happened maybe during church, but by the time he got here, it was a bad situation."
The nursing supervisor said the hospital sees "quite a few" snake handlers.
Fowler learned of the bite from a photographer who was at the service.
Fowler met Wolford 18 months ago as she worked on a documentary with Mark Strandquist. The film is titled "With Signs Following," a shortening of "Church of God with Signs Following," a name associated with churches that condone snake handling.
Although the film began as an account of Wolford's snake-handling church in southern West Virginia, Fowler said Wolford quickly became the centerpiece.
As a teen he watched his father die from a bite during a service, Fowler said. After that the younger Wolford left the faith for a while but returned about a decade ago to promote the rare faith generally considered a sect of Pentecostalism.
While she said Wolford appeared to be an "extremely devout" person, Fowler said she realizes now she didn't truly appreciate the risks inherent with his beliefs.
She said she watched him interact with Sheba -- the rattlesnake that reportedly delivered the fatal bite -- more than 100 times.
He fed the snake in his home, brought it out at some services and seemed to have a trusting relationship with the reptile, she said.
One of Wolford's family members eventually called paramedics.
Wolford had been bitten at least three other times, she said, and he had never sought medical attention.
Wolford and his followers believed there were two reasons someone could be bitten, she said.
If someone handling a snake had sinned, they could be bitten for not leading a righteous life. A bite also could mean God was using the person as a messenger, to confirm the faith and word is true, Fowler said.
"I'm sure (Wolford's followers) all feel it's a result of him being a messenger," Fowler said.
Followers of the sect rely on a literal reading from the Book of Mark in the King James Bible. Chapter 16, verses 16 through 18 read: "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned. And these signs shall follow those who believe: in My name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands upon the sick, and they shall recover."
While several other Appalachian states have outlawed snake handling, no law prevents such services in West Virginia.
Wolford had been working to spread the faith, Fowler said, regularly inviting media and anyone interested to observe services. Other family members participated, but snake handling has declined in recent years.
"He's kind of been the person who kept the faith alive," Fowler said. "I think we'll see a sharp decline in West Virginia, at least of people openly practicing the faith."
Fowler said she and Strandquist were working on the final cut of the documentary before learning of Wolford's passing.
They're not certain how his death will affect the film, but they have already released a trailer. It opens with the voice of Wolford's mother, speaking about her son's practices. She handled snakes in the past, Fowler said, and the trailer shows that she clearly understands the dangers of the faith.
"I'm proud of him and don't want to see him die ... but if he does, it's still the word," his mother says. "I guess there are times when I have had a fear for him, but for the most part, no."
Fowler said they made the trailer "not thinking anything would happen to him" and it was depressing to see the realization of an ever-present risk.
While Fowler did not agree with his beliefs, she respected his conviction and thinks Wolford would see his death as an affirmation of his beliefs.
"(It is the) greatest honor to die in this way, in the way that people would know the validity of his faith and the power of his faith," Fowler said of Wolford's beliefs.
Kenny Mann, a director of Cravens-Shires Funeral Home in Bluefield, said that an obituary would be posted to the funeral home's website today.
A viewing is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Wolford's church, the funeral director said. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. the following day. Mann said Wolford would be buried at a family cemetery in Phelps, Ky.
In an interview with The Post for a story last year, Jim Murphy, curator of the Reptile Discovery Center at the National Zoo, described the effects of a rattlesnake bite.
The pain is "excruciating," he told the newspaper. "The venom attacks the nervous system. It's vicious and gruesome when it hits."
Writer Ashley B. Craig contributed to this report.