Venomenal!

And they thought Cleopatra was in da Nile.

Rob Ullman

75 Years Ago

Handling snakes in a religious ceremony is front-page news when the snake gets the upper hand, as has happened about 100 times in the U.S. since the practice began about a century ago. The Code of Virginia makes it a Class 4 misdemeanor to “display, exhibit, handle or use any poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such a manner as to endanger the life or health of any person.” Kyle Daly, in an April 2007 story on the website C-ville.com, wrote, “We can only imagine the lawless, reptilian frontier that Virginia must have been before that particular decree was handed down.” But we don’t have to imagine it.

On October 8, 1936, The Post, out of Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, carried two front-page stories about snake handling following the venom-fueled demise the previous week of the Rev. T. Anderson, a “faith preacher,” in Jonesville in Lee County. The daily papers had made “quite adoo” over the matter, the story said. Such adoo, in fact, that New York’s Arthur Brisbane, whom his friend and publisher William Randolph Hearst once called “the greatest journalist of his day,” dedicated his syndicated column to it. Brisbane wrote that Rev. Anderson, “in a demonstration of faith intended to prove divine power, allowed poisonous serpents to bite him, assuring his congregation that they could not harm him.” A copperhead got him twice on his right hand, a rattlesnake once on his left: The preacher “of the ‘Holiness’ persuasion” died in short order.

Not prone to restraint, Brisbane wrote that such “distressing events” were based partly on “ignorance of the construction of the universe.” When we thought that earth was the be-all and end-all—“with sun, moon, stars all revolving around it, the ruler of the universe sitting directly overhead,” he wrote—it was easier to think that said ruler might reach down with a divine antidote to the snake pizen. But now we know our universe better than that. It contains “thirty thousand million suns, some of them one million times as big as our sun” and so “it is unreasonable to expect the Ruler of so vast a realm to suspend laws that He has made, or personally to interfere with the effects of snake poison.” It’s a shame Anderson never brushed up on his Copernicus.

Without a law barring snake handling, ran the other article in The Post, Jonesville cops were powerless to prevent such perilous theater. But they spoke out against it. Sheriff R.F. Giles called the demonstrations “out of reason for enlightened Christians” and slammed them as “harking back to the dark ages.” A physician also decried the practice, and the mayor of nearby St. Charles said they would allow no more demonstrations like the preacher’s. The practice’s heyday was over by mid-century, but it persists today, illegal or not, in pockets of believers. Not so all the handlers. Go tell it on the mountain.


100 Years Ago

Under the headline “Big Sensation is Promised,” Staunton’s Augusta County Argus reports that at the upcoming meeting of Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s board of visitors, charges will be leveled against some of the school’s stewards and its president, Paul Barringer. The beef? That cadets harbored in their rooms a woman from Roanoke who is said to be “well known” there, and that Barringer knew of her presence and did nothing. Even a legislative inquiry into the “alleged scandal” is predicted. Students and teachers deny knowledge of an “impending sensation,” but it has been the buzz in Richmond for weeks.


50 Years Ago

In a strategic mission that will indelibly insinuate Virginia’s Good Neighbor Policy in the common worldwide psyche, Governor and Mrs. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. and 81 other representatives of the Old Dominion depart Norfolk on the Moore-McCormack ocean liner Brasil for a 30-day cruise of the Caribbean and South America, reports the Danville Bee. Destinations on the grueling outreach effort will include Rio, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and San Juan. On behalf of the people of Virginia, the Almond party is carting along tobacco, country hams, peanuts, textiles and photos as gifts for their hosts.


25 Years Ago

At a meeting of the Gloucester County board of supervisors, Sheriff William Gatling avers that the food prepared at Walter Reed Memorial Hospital for inmates in the county jail is “slop,” reports the local paper, Glo-Quips. Gatling has said his dogs eat better than his inmates. Supervisors see this as another move in Gatling’s months-long campaign to have a kitchen added on to the jail. Gatling also says he can whip up a breakfast for just 30 cents, compared to the hospital’s 49. But Chairman Burton Bland is more worried about complaints that sheriff’s cars are being seen outside the county. Gatling exits the scene.

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