The documentary, directed by Theo Love, focuses on the trial of Jackson County minister Glenn Summerford, who was pastor at the Church of Jesus with Signs Following in Scottsboro, Alabama, where he handled snakes during services. In 1992, however, Summerford was convicted of trying to kill his wife, Darlene Summerford, with snakes. The story, the documentary explains, haunted Southern Appalachia for decades — but what really happened with the Summerfords, and why were snakes involved?
While serpents aren’t commonly seen in religious services, the practice Summerford employed has a long history. It first appeared in the 1910s with the Tennessee minister George Went Hensley, who believed that the New Testament commanded Christians to handle snakes and popularized the practice. Around the same time, James Miller in Sand Mountain, AL, followed a similar belief, unaware of Hensley’s practice.
Pentecostal Holiness churches that practice snake handling during services see it as a demonstration of a strength of faith, and take the passage Mark 16:17-18 of the Bible literally. “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; 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 on the sick, and they shall recover,” it reads.
Glenn Summerford, however, tried to use the serpents as a weapon, said his wife, per the Associated Press. He accused Darlene Summerford of having an affair with another preacher, which she denied. On October 4, 1991, she was bitten on the hand twice by a snake and later testified that her husband tried to make her stick her hand in a cage of snakes. He said she “had to die,” Darlene Summerford testified, so he could marry another woman.
“He took a pipe and hit the cages real hard so the snakes got real mad and then grabbed me by the hair and said he would push my face in if I didn’t stick my hand in there,” she told jurors.
Tammy Flippo, a defense witness, told a different story. She said the opposite occurred — that Darlene Summerford was bitten while trying to kill Glenn Summerford. “She told me that she got Glenn so drunk he passed out and went out to the shed to get a snake to put on him but it bit her instead,” Flippo said, per the AP. A witness put a further twist on Flippo’s story, however, saying she stayed at his home. Flippo denied having a relationship with Glenn Summerford.
The jury ultimately sided with Darlene Summerford. Glenn Summerford was sentenced to 129 years in prison for attempted murder of his wife, a sentence he is still serving. In 2004, he was convicted of escape after managing to slip away from a work crew. He was denied parole in June, the AP reports, but could be released as early as February, per Department of Corrections records.
“I feel like justice was done,” Darlene Summerford said in 1992 of his conviction.