The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine syndrome is characterized by an exceptionally strong startle reaction. The startle reflex is quite normal. It is the typical, fast, automatic reaction to unexpected or sudden stimuli (e.g., a sudden noise or sight). The exact cause of Maine’s jumping Frenchmen is uncertain. According to one explanation, the disease develops as a result of an excessive conditioned response to a specific scenario impacted by cultural variables. The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine were originally discovered in the late nineteenth century in Maine and the Canadian province of Quebec among a small group of French Canadian lumberjacks.
Discovery of the disorder
George Miller Beard, a neurologist, was the first to explore the phenomenon in 1878. Beard, a Yale graduate and Civil War soldier, was responsible for several pretty contemporary and modern-sounding advances in neurology and psychiatry. He introduced the term neurasthenia to describe weariness produced by civilization and urbanization. He advocated for various psychiatric changes aimed at protecting the mentally ill, and he risked widespread public condemnation when he contended that Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, should be declared not guilty due to insanity.
As a result, his work with the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine was but one chapter of a much longer career, albeit arguably the oddest. Beard was drawn to the wilds of northern Maine by what appeared to be fantastic tales about the lumberjacks’ strange behavior. When shocked, the males would respond exaggeratedly and seemingly reflexively by jumping, yelling, punching, obeying directions, repeating back phrases even though they didn’t comprehend the language used (a behavior known as echolalia), and imitating how other individuals moved (echopraxia). The men were also described as shy and ticklish.
Beard spent a lot of time with the patients, whom he called Jumpers, to learn everything he could about their condition. While it was beyond the expertise of nineteenth-century science to determine whether this was a psychological or neurological condition — and there is still some controversy on that point — Beard could claim with some certainty that this was an involuntary reaction.
The startle response
Sufferers would exhibit the reflex response even if it meant endangering themselves or loved ones. And Beard was very certain that this wasn’t a case of sadomasochism in the lumber camps – the consistency of the hits, as well as the fact that they were never tempered or modified by conscious thought, indicated strongly for these being involuntary behaviors.
So, what triggered this behavior? This particular case may have had a genetic component, given that the majority of the victims were closely related and hailed from one of four families, although it could just reflect the insular nature of the French-Canadian lumberjack society in 19th century Maine. According to Marie-Helene Saint-Hilaire and Jean-Marc Saint-2001 Hilaire’s assessment of the disorder, it is “a culturally specific exploitation of a universal neurophysiological response, the startle reflex,” and a particular artefact of “closed and unsophisticated communities such as lumber camps in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Whatever the underlying cause, persons with this unusual illness have a hyperactive startle response, which means that the synaptic response of their brains to a rapid loud noise triggers a cascade of reactions that go much beyond the typical rush of adrenaline and quick, shudder-like motion. There are several neuronal pathways implicated in the startle reaction, and any one of them could be engaged in the startle response.
Let us conclude by looking at some of the most amazing anecdotes about the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disease. Beard’s writing on the issue is not only highly researched and well thought out, but also full of entertaining tales. Here’s an excerpt from Beard’s 1880 speech on the subject:
One of the jumpers, seated in his chair with a knife in his hand, was commanded to throw it, and he did so fast, causing it to become trapped in a beam opposite; at the same time, he repeated the order to throw it… When he was slapped on the shoulder, he also threw out his pipe while rolling it with tobacco. Two jumpers standing near one other were commanded to strike, and they did so violently… The jumper repeats the order when the commands are shouted quickly and loudly. When he is taught to strike, he strikes; when he is commanded to throw, he tosses whatever he is holding… They couldn’t help but repeat the word or sound that came from the person who ordered them, just as they couldn’t help but strike, drop, hurl, leap, or start; all of these events were, in fact, components of the general condition known as jumping.
It was not required for the sound to be made by a human: any sudden or unexpected noise, such as the explosion of a gun or handgun, the falling of a window, or the slamming of a door, would induce these jumpers to display some or all of these behaviors…
It was dangerous to shock them in any way while they held an axe or knife. All of the jumpers believe that being jumped exhausts them and that they fear it, although they were continuously irritated by their friends.