A London woman is dead after being bitten by a snake during a Sunday church service, the Laurel County Sheriff's Office said yesterday.
Neighbors near East London Holiness Church on Smith Brewer Road, which officials said the 48-year-old attended, said the church practices serpent handling.
The name of the woman was withheld yesterday as the Laurel County Sheriff's Office investigated the death, which police described as accidental.
Friends escorted the woman to a local hospital Sunday afternoon, Lt. Ed Sizemore said.
"She said she was bitten by a snake at her church," Sizemore said.
The woman was taken to University of Kentucky Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 11:30 p.m., almost four hours after the bite was reported.
Sizemore said he thinks the woman was bitten by a timber rattlesnake. He did not know if the woman practiced snake handling.
Snake handling is based on a passage in the Bible, in the Gospel of Mark, that says a sign of a true believer is the power to "take up serpents" without being harmed.
It is illegal in Kentucky to handle reptiles as part of religious services. Snake handling is a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50-$100 fine.
Opal Wagers lives near the church on Smith Brewer Road and said it's been two or three months since she last visited the church, but said she's witnessed snake handling there.
"I don't have no dealings with those snakes," Wagers said. "But they seem to handle them pretty good."
She said people fill the church at least one Sunday each month to handle snakes. Wagers said members from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia bring in the snakes.
Police said they had not received reports about snake handling at the church.
No church officials could be reached for comment last night.
In 2000, the Herald-Leader reported that the last person to die in Kentucky from a snakebite sustained during a religious service was in 1997.
The death of Daril R. Collins, 23, of Barbourville, was the sixth such death in the state since 1980.