The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine might sound like the latest indie band hoping to make it big on the music scene, but it’s actually the name of one of the most bizarre medical phenomena ever uncovered in the modern era. Jumping Frenchmen of Maine syndrome, first identified by George Miller Beard in 1880, is still incredibly mysterious and is still confounding to the medical community.
In short, the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disease - if it can even be called as such - is a startle disorder, and specifically a “startle-matching syndrome.” Such afflictions cause one’s startle reflex to be heightened to shocking proportions, which leads to exaggerated responses to unexpected stimuli. In the case of the Jumping Frenchmen, these responses could include leaping into fires, hurling knives, or even striking one’s own best friend.
The phenomenon that would come to be known as the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder was first described by George Miller Beard in 1878 after he observed it near Moosehead Lake in Maine. Beard - a progressive neurologist whose advocacy for the mentally ill was decades ahead of its time - traveled to the region after hearing reports of strange behavior among the local population of French-Canadian lumberjacks, and he found exactly what he was looking for.
Those afflicted with the disorder - whom Beard referred to simply as “jumpers” - displayed a host of symptoms, and Beard soon realized they were dealing with an entirely unique medical phenomenon. Beard proposed several theories regarding the disorder’s origins - as did several other researchers in the years thereafter - but the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine remain largely a mystery, and one that’s unlikely to be solved anytime soon.
In medical terms, Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder is a “startle-matching syndrome,” which means that it promotes an extremely exaggerated startle reaction in those afflicted. All humans have a startle reaction - it’s what makes us react involuntarily to sudden and unexpected stimuli - but startle-matching syndromes can heighten those responses to ridiculous proportions.
That’s where the term “jumpers” originated - those suffering from the disorder could be observed screaming, flailing, or jumping out of their skin at the slightest stimulus. As long as the inciting sound or action was unexpected, those afflicted with the disorder were at the mercy of their involuntary reactions, which were often seen as comical in their extremity. One could only imagine how difficult such an affliction would be for a would-be lumberjack.
The exaggerated startle reactions of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine didn’t always present themselves in the form of jumping or screaming - which, to an extent, are normal responses to unexpected stimuli. Sufferers of the disorder also experienced both echolalia and echopraxia: the involuntary repetition of words and actions, respectively.
The echolalia led many to compare the Jumping Frenchmen to parrots, as some could be compelled to repeat anything that was shouted at them unexpectedly, even if they didn’t understand a sentence's meaning. George Miller Beard described an incident in which he spoke Latin to a lumberjack who didn’t comprehend the language:
[He] repeated or echoed the sound of the word as it came to him, in a quick sharp voice, at the same time he jumped, or struck, or threw, or raised his shoulders, or made some other [aggressive] muscular motion. They could not help repeating the word or sound that came from the person that ordered them...
By far the most eye-catching symptom of the disorder was an intense degree of suggestibility among the afflicted - so much so they would do practically anything that was suddenly shouted at them.
Jumping Frenchmen could be convinced to hurl whatever was in their hands, jump into rivers, or even strike another person. They could - and were, by those less-than-sympathetic of their plight - be compelled to harm themselves or their loved ones. Oftentimes, these coerced reactions came with a hint of echolalia, as George Miller Beard describes:
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.