clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Over nearly 40 years, Dewey Chafin has been bitten 118 times by poisonous snakes. His fingers are twisted and withered, his body covered with tiny blemishes, his days often spent recuperating in bed.

Sometimes, says the nation's best-known snake-handler, the pain makes him wish God would take him home. And always, he is convinced that when the time comes, he will succumb to a reptile's bite."That's the way I'd like to die. It's really the only way I can think of," said Chafin, 62. "There'll be a lot more snake bites before then."

Each weekend, Chafin helps lead services at the cozy Church of Lord Jesus, an independent Pentecostal church tucked in a long hollow outside this isolated Appalachian town of about 700 near the border with Kentucky and Virginia.

The gathering begins with a prayer and quickly turns into a festive celebration with rockabilly music, preaching and praise to God. When the feeling is right, Chafin puts down his electric guitar, picks up a snake, stares the slithery symbol in the eyes and dances with it.

"You just get this feeling inside of you when you get anointed," he said. "I can do it without the feeling, but you're not getting as good a blessing."

Chafin has handled thousands, including highly venomous cobras and African vipers. Like many other church members, he keeps an aquarium of copperheads and rattlers he gets in the woods at home.

"We're not crazy. We don't worship snakes. All we're doing is what God wants us to do," he said.

Chafin remembers nearly every bite. The first was a copperhead, which nabbed him on the hand in 1960.

"It hurt something terrible," he said.

The most painful was the black rattler that got him on the left thumb one Sunday night 16 years ago. The pain kept him awake for 14 days.