Aug 6, 2015

Snakes and cults, oh my!

Richmond Times-Dispatch
August 4, 2015 
Nicole Kappatos, Newsroom Researcher and Archivist

The fascinating stories of snake-handling religious groups peppered the front page headlines for much of the summer and fall of 1940.

The first front page story that caught my attention was titled, “Snake-Bitten Six-Year-Old Girl Object of South Georgia Hunt.”

On August 2, 1940, police in the small, rural South Georgia town of Adel, began to investigate what they believed was a “local snake-handling religious cult.” The police search was sparked by unconfirmed reports that a young girl named Leitha Ann Rowan had near-died of a “copperhead moccasin” bite while handling the snake during a church service. The “religious cult” was identified as the Free Holiness Church.

Until the whereabouts of the little girl could be confirmed, police took her father, Albert Rowan, and the group's leader “farmer-preacher” W.T. Lipham into custody. The girl’s mother, also a member of the Free Holiness Church, told authorities she sought medical attention after her daughter was bitten—however, the town sheriff did not trust her account and expressed a continued concern.

After being hidden for three days, authorities located little Leitha Ann, “discolored…in a stupor and barely able to walk.” Her relatives finally brought the child to a doctor for observation, but denied any medical treatment. The doctor reported that her condition was serious.

Further investigation uncovered that eight other individuals, including the girl’s father, were bitten as the snake was passed around during a ritual. In protest to their arrest, the girl’s father and W.T. Lipham went on a hunger strike, denying their connection to the poisoning of six-year-old Leitha Ann. While devout followers of Free Holiness yelled praises outside, Lipham and Rowan paced in their cells, holding their Bibles and praying aloud for divine deliverance. Legal action against the men depended on the outcome of Leitha’s condition—would she live or die?

The good news—little Leitha Anne recovered. As a result, her father and Lipham were released from jail, and continued believing that faith could cure the devoted follower of a venomous snake bite.

Snake-handling religious groups such as Free Holiness Church continued to spark attention in 1940. A later story, also in August 1940, was headlined “Nurse Seriously Ill After Bite By Snake at Religious Rites." Later an editorial in September 1940 featured a reporter’s firsthand account of the snake-handling groups in Kentucky—you can read the full editorial in today's featured image!

The snake handling religious groups did eventually make their way to Virginia, and in a few weeks, I will further explore a headline from that case—stay tuned.