In 1878 American neurologist George Beard made his way to the Moosehead Lake region of northern Maine. He was not trying to hook a trophy trout or hunt moose, but rather had set his sights on a much more interesting quarry: the legendary Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. Rumour had reached him that certain French Canadian lumberjacks of this remote area had a very interesting reaction when startled. They would jump up, throw their arms in the air, often yelling expletives. Even more bizarre, a sudden command to one of the afflicted lumberjacks would be automatically obeyed even to the point of jumping from heights or hitting another individual.
In one case Beard startled a subject who was cutting tobacco by tapping him on the shoulder and shouting, “throw it”. He observes: “Almost as quick as an explosion of a pistol, he threw the knife and it struck the beam opposite.” Beard also describes another subject: “While holding a tumbler in his hand standing near to him, I told him to throw it. He dashed the tumbler with great violence.” (Interestingly a later Russian article mistranslated the word “tumbler” and reported the syndrome mainly affected gymnasts.)
It was said that if a Jumping Frenchman was standing next to his mother with an axe in his hand, and was told abruptly to strike, he would do so without hesitation. In a later study by St-Hilaire a female victim was described who “…in response to the command ‘sing like a rooster’ would jump on a table, screaming and thrashing her arms.” Other features of the syndrome included echolalia, or repeating the words of others, and echopraxia, repeating the actions of another. Sufferers were described as excessively shy and ticklish, and the condition often ran in families. The response was intensified by fatigue and anxiety.
Later, other jumpers were found in the Beauce region of Quebec, the place of origin of many of the Moose Lake lumberjacks. Other reports described five affected siblings, all the offspring of a French Canadian guide in Wedgeport, Nova Scotia. Even the Acadian French of Louisiana manifest jumping, the victims being locally nicknamed “Ragin’ Cajuns.”
Gilles de la Tourette translated Beard’s paper in 1881. He erroneously assumed the victims suffered from the same affliction as what later became known as Tourette Syndrome. However, jumpers do not manifest tics and Tourette sufferers do not generally suffer from heightened startle response. Tourette was more on the mark with his 1884 article on “jumping, latah and myriachit.” He felt these were one and the same phenomenon manifesting in different parts of the world. Latah, which means “ticklish” in the Malaysian dialect, occurs mainly in women. Like jumpers, others often startle those afflicted by latah for their amusement. Myriachit is a similar phenomenon described in Siberia. In fact many other cases of exaggerated startle response and automatic obedience have been found in places as disparate as India, Yemen, the Philippines and Somalia.
Other neurological conditions exist which cause exaggerated startle response, but with distinctive differences from jumping. Victims of hyperekplexia fall to the ground when startled and show hypertonia, hyperreflexia and gait abnormalities. They do not manifest automatic obedience nor do they repeat words and gestures. “Startle epilepsy” affecting some children with hemiplegia and infantile encephalopathy, may cause brief muscular contractions with a sudden stimulus, sometimes also associated with falling. Kok Disease, in addition to an excessive startle response also causes myoclonic jerks and falling to the ground. Like hyperekplexia, victims may also manifest hypertonia and hyperreflexia.
So what is the cause of the Jumping Frenchmen’s disease? Some feel it is a heritable neurological disorder. More recently Saint-Hilaire has postulated that jumping is an operantly conditioned behavior. The jumpers often began manifesting symptoms after starting to work as lumberjacks. In the isolated work camps any source of diversion was avidly sought, and an individual with an exaggerated startle reflex would provide ongoing amusement to others. Since jumpers are often characterized as shy, the extra attention incumbent on being a jumper may have reinforced their behavior. This idea is strengthened by the observation that jumping diminishes when the sufferers leave the environment in which the behavior is reinforced.
Whatever the cause, jumping remains a neurological condition that continues to fascinate physicians over one hundred years after Beard’s first descriptions of the phenomenon. Personally though, I’d never startle one with a knife.
BC Health Guide: bchealthguide.org
Beard, G. Remarks upon jumpers or jumping Frenchmen. J Nerv Ment Dis 1878;5:526
Beard, G. Experiments with the jumpers of Maine. Pop Sci Monthly (NY) 1880;18:170-8
Stevens, H. Jumping Frenchmen of Maine (myriachit). Trans Am Neurol Assoc 1964;89:65-7
Saint-Hilaire MH. Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. Neurology 1986 Sep;36(9):1269-71
Lumberjacks via Wikimedia Commons