The French Lumberjacks Who Couldn’t Stop Jumping

By Michael Van Duisen on Wednesday, August 28, 2013
“Two jumpers standing near each other were told to strike, and they struck each other very forcibly.” —George Miller Beard

In A Nutshell

In 1878, George Miller Beard, a US neurologist, was in the northern part of Maine and observed odd behavior from the French-Canadian lumberjacks who were nearby. They jumped at loud, surprising noises and would obey any order given unexpectedly, without hesitation. To this day, it is still debated whether this is a neurological disorder or whether it is simply a psychological condition.

The Whole Bushel

George Miller Beard was a Yale graduate and best known for defining neurasthenia, a disorder that is basically the fatigue, anxiety, and depression someone feels when their “central nervous system’s energy reserves have been depleted.” (Beard attributed the disorder to civilization; it’s been referred to as “Americanitis.”) In 1878, after hearing about the jumping lumberjacks of Northern Maine, Beard set off to see if there was any truth to the stories. When he arrived, he found every bit of it to be correct.

Sufferers of the disorder, or “jumpers” as Beard called them, had a number of interesting quirks. First, whenever they were startled—usually by loud or unexpected noises—they would jump. In addition, they would occasionally yell, strike others, or exhibit echolalia, a speech disorder in which the sufferer repeats a phrase, even if it’s in another language. They could also be seen suffering from echopraxia, a disorder that involves the imitation of another person’s movements.

But perhaps the strangest quirk to Jumping Frenchmen of Maine (the actual name of the disorder) is that the sufferers are highly suggestible. Beard found they would follow any command given to them as long as it was said quickly and unexpectedly. One man, if someone shouted “Strike!” at him, would slap the nearest person in the face. Others would jump on command or throw whatever they held in their hands. Sadly, but probably not surprising, the men told Beard they got tired out by “jumping” and were constantly harassed by their neighbors. (Beard noticed most of the men were uncommonly shy.)

The biggest component of the disorder, the startle reflex, could be triggered by any sudden noise or movement and, in the case of one man Beard thoroughly studied, even if the trigger was expected, the startle reflex would still occur. (He and the man went to an isolated room and Beard proceeded to lightly kick the man, triggering the startle reflex even if the man was told he was about to be kicked.) This disorder is also said to be a part of a larger group of disorders of unknown origin, similar to a Siberian condition known as miryachit, in which sufferers exhibit many of the same symptoms. Even today, there is much debate on the specifics of the disorder, including whether or not it is an actual neurological disorder or, to put it bluntly, if it is all in their heads.

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