The story of “the snake handling preacher who tried to kill his wife” is one that has been widely told and talked about in this area since Glenn Summerford was found guilty of forcing his wife’s hand into a rattlesnake cage in 1991 and sentenced to 99 years in prison for attempted murder. But a documentary that debuted this week on HBO presents an in-depth, if not intimate, glimpse into the tale that is said to have “haunted Southern Appalachia for decades.”
“Alabama Snakes” was filmed in Scottsboro and around Jackson County last year.
Summerford, 76, is imprisoned at Bullock County Correctional Facility, but the documentary, produced and directed by Theo Love, uses old interviews between Summerford and Dr. Thomas Burton — professor emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University— and not only depicts the days leading up to the weekend his wife Darlene was bitten twice by rattlesnakes, but spans back to his days of childhood when Summerford’s stepdad taught him how to fight to protect himself.
Burton, a folklorist who has studied the tradition of handling serpents for more than 40 years, said the story of Glenn and Darlene Summerford stands out to him from all the rest.
“This is the story of the serpent and the spirit,” Burton says in the film.
Summerford, in a jailhouse interview, told Burton he wasn’t guilty. A Pentecostal pastor at the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following — where believers worship according to the Gospel of Mark when it says “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” — Summerford claims he could not have been guilty because of his faith.
Instead he said he was where he was because of the life he had led as a younger man. Before spending 30 days fasting, praying and finding God, Summerford led a violent life, fighting other men sometimes to the point of knocking eyeballs out of his opponent’s head.
During that time he lost a small child in a house fire. It changed him, changed his marriage to his first wife, Doris— who said Summerford may have blamed himself for the child’s death— and he began drinking everyday — perhaps bringing out his strongest inner demons. In those days, Summerford was convicted of two felonies.
“I’d been the devil. Everybody knows it too,” Summerford told Burton.
Marty Summerford, Glenn and Darlene’s son, says in the film that his dad didn’t have a conscience before he got into church, but when he received the Holy Spirit he prayed so long he wore holes in the knees of his pants. Marty said though many people didn’t believe that Summerford could have truly changed, he witnessed his father quit drinking, and he saw him cast out demons and heal the sick as a pastor.
Of course, the story everybody knows happened some time after Summerford turned his life around.
For Darlene’s side of the story, her husband had accused her of having an affair with another preacher. In the film, Darlene says she saw a demon enter his body late one night. Summerford turned on her and wanted her dead.
″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,″ Darlene testified during the trial. ″He said I had to die because he wanted to marry another woman.”
In all, Darlene said she was bitten twice by the poisonous snakes. She said Summerford forced her to write a suicide note, and then refused to take her to the hospital. In the film, she explains that she was only able to call an ambulance herself after Summerford passed out from drinking.
Summerford maintained that Darlene was trying to frame him.
The jury sided with Darlene, but for those who were around at the time the real answers may never be given. Summerford’s first wife, Doris, put it this way: “Darlene and Glenn and the good Lord’s all that know what happened.”
Alabama snake premiered on HBO on Dec. 9 and is now available to stream on HBO Max.