“Copperhead Cuddlers” in Durham, 1947

Snake handlers from the Zion Tabernacle Church in Durham in 1949. Rev. Colonel Bunn is believed to be on the far right holding the snake. Image from the State Archives and copyright the Raleigh News & Observer.

On November 1, 1947, Durham police raided the Zion Tabernacle Church on Peabody Street and confiscated a copperhead snake being handled in a church service.

While no arrests were made that night, during the next several days, individuals, including Reverend Colonel Hartman Bunn, were reminded of a city ordinance banning the handling of poisonous reptiles. No arrests were made pending examination of the snake to determine if was venomous or not. An expert at what’s now the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences verified that the snake was a copperhead.

Bunn and other members of the church continued to handle snakes at ceremonies on subsequent nights, vowing to take their fight to the Supreme Court. After he was arrested, Bunn pleaded not guilty in recorder’s court before a standing-room-only crowd and asked for a continuance.

On November 19, Bunn and his snake tender, Benjamin Ralph Massey, were found guilty and fined. Both appealed to Superior Court. As he left the courthouse, this phase of the “copperhead cuddlers” case finished, Bunn made an impassioned speech on the steps in which he compared the police who confiscated his snakes to Hitler’s SS Elite Guard.

Click on over the State Archives’s Flickr site to see more photos of members of the church handling snakes.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.