In the 1870s, something very strange happened to the French-Canadians working as lumberjacks in Northern Maine. When startled, they would jump in the air, imitate those around them, and even obey random commands. This was the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder.
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The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine may not be the weirdest mental disorder ever — there are way too many contenders for that title — but it's definitely got the weirdest name. The stories surrounding it are strange enough that it might well still have attained infamy even without such a bizarre moniker attached, but the name definitely doesn't hurt. We'll get to some of the most fascinating stories in a moment, but first let's take a look at just what this disorder is.
The Discovery of the Disorder
The phenomenon was first investigated by the neurologist George Miller Beard in 1878. A Yale graduate and Civil War veteran, Beard was responsible for a number of fairly progressive and modern-sounding innovations in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry. He popularized the term neurasthenia as a fatigue caused by the rigors of civilization and urbanization. He argued for several psychiatric reforms meant to protect the mentally ill, and he risked widespread public denouncement when he argued Charles Guiteau, the assassin of Present James Garfield, should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
As such, his work with the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine was just one chapter in a much longer career, albeit likely the strangest. Brought to the wilds of northern Maine by seeming tall tales of the lumberjacks' odd behavior, Beard found that it was all basically true. When startled, the men would display exaggerated, and apparently reflexive, reactions that included jumping, yelling, hitting, obeying commands, repeating back phrases even if they didn't understand the language used (a phenomenon known as echolalia), and imitating how other people moved (echopraxia). The men were also said to be shy and very ticklish.
Beard worked extensively with the subjects, which he referred to as Jumpers, to determine as much as he could about their condition. While it was beyond the expertise of 19th century science to say whether this was a psychological or neurological disorder — indeed, there's still some debate on that point — Beard could at least say with some certainty that this was an involuntary reaction.
The Startle Response
The sufferers would display the reflex response even when to do so meant injuring themselves or loved ones. And Beard was fairly sure this wasn't a question of sadomasochism running through the lumber camps — the uniform nature of the hits, and the fact that they were never tempered or moderated by conscious thought, argued strongly for these being involuntary actions.
So what exactly caused this behavior? This particular instance may have had some genetic component, considering most of the sufferers were closely related and came from one of four families, but that may just speak to the insular nature of the French-Canadian lumberjack community in 19th century Maine. (As you can imagine, that's not a particularly big demographic.) In their 2001 appraisal of the disorder, Marie-Helene Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Marc Saint-Hilaire argue that the disorder — and others like it found around the world — are "a culturally specific exploitation of a universal neurophysiological response, the startle reflex", and a particular artifact of "closed and unsophisticated communities such as lumber camps in the 19th and early 20th centuries."
Whatever the underlying cause, those who possess this rare disorder have a hyperactive startle response, meaning their brains' synaptic response to a sudden loud noise causes a cascade of reactions that go far beyond the sudden rush of adrenaline and quick, shudder-like motion most of us experience. There are a number of neural pathways involved in the startle response, and any one of them could be involved in the hyperactive response observed in the Jumping Frenchmen.
Stories of the Response
Let's close by taking a look at some of the most remarkable stories involving the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder. Beard's writing on the subject isn't just well researched and thought out — it's also full of fascinating anecdotes. Here's part of an 1880 address by Beard on the topic:
One of the jumpers while sitting in his chair with a knife in his hand was told to throw it, and he threw it quickly, so that it stuck in a beam opposite; at the same time he repeated the order to throw it... He also threw away his pipe when rolling it with tobacco when he was slapped upon the shoulder. Two jumpers standing near each other were told to strike, and they struck each other very forcibly... When the commands are uttered in a quick loud voice the jumper repeats the order. When told to strike, he strikes, when told to throw it, he throws it, whatever he has in his hands... They could not help repeating the word or sound that came from the person that ordered them any more than they could help striking, dropping, throwing, jumping, or starting; all of these phenomena were indeed but parts of the general condition known as, jumping.
It was not necessary that the sound should come from a human being: any sudden or unexpected noise, as the explosion of a gun or pistol, the falling of a window, or the slamming of a door, provided it be unexpected and loud enough, would cause these jumpers to exhibit some one or all of these phenomena...It was dangerous to startle them in any way when they had an axe or knife in their hand. All of the jumpers agree that it tires them to be jumped and they dread it, but they were constantly annoyed by their companions
Let's go back to that pipe-throwing fellow from the beginning of Beard's description. This particular jumper was the subject of much of Beard's writings, and this jumper represented one of the most extreme cases of the disorder. Beard relates how when this man was standing next to one of the employees in a local hotel and suddenly ordered to "strike", he would hit the nearby person hard on the cheek. Beard relates how he took this jumper away into a private room where he discussed the man's condition and personal history at some length — and occasionally interspersing the conversation with sudden mild kicks. Even knowing full when these kicks were coming, the man still had at least a mild reaction, and if the kick came without warning, he showed the full startle response.
But Beard's stories of the Jumping Frenchmen might actually be outdone by the reports of a similar Siberian disorder known as miryachit, which literally means "to act foolishly." That these stories are even weirder is not exactly surprising — while Beard's investigations were a work of disciplined scientific inquiry, most contemporary papers on this Russian disease were more like collections of anecdotes, and generally secondhand accounts at that. As such, it's harder to verify just how truthful these stories are, though they do seem to broadly correspond with what Beard was able to document much more authoritatively.
We have Dr. William Hammond, a former United States Surgeon General, to thank for this 1884 account of miryachit among the Siberians, which he had obtained from three naval officers assigned there. There they had met a steward on a river boat who showed these reactions:
It seemed that he was afflicted with a peculiar mental or nervous disease, which forced him to imitate everything, suddenly presented to his senses. Thus, when the captain slapped the paddle-box suddenly, he seemed compelled against his will to imitate it instantly, and with remarkable accuracy. To annoy him, some of the passengers imitated pigs grunting, or called out absurd names ; others clapped their hands and shouted, jumped, or threw their hats on the deck suddenly, and the poor steward, suddenly startled, would echo them all precisely, and sometimes several consecutively. Frequently he would expostulate, begging people not to startle him, and again would grow furiously angry, but even in the midst of his passion he would helplessly imitate some ridiculous shout or motion directed at him by his pitiless tormentors.
Indeed, this story speaks to what sadly seems to be a general truth about this disorder. The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder and related conditions like miryachit may be an ultra-rare conditions of uncertain origin. But the Being-A-Total-Dick-To-People-With-Jumping-Frenchman-Of-Maine-Disorder... Disorder? That is frighteningly common, and sadly all too easy to understand.
"Jumping Frenchmen of Maine" by Harold Stevens
"Classic Articles of 19th-Century American Neurologists: A Critical Review" by Douglas J. Lanska
"Jumping Frenchmen of Maine" by Marie-Hélène Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Marc Saint-Hilair
Boo!: culture, experience, and the startle reflex by Ronald C. Simons