I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A dramatic startle response among French-Canadian forest workers drew the interest of medical sleuths. More than a century later, there’s still no consensus on what was going on. The problem still shows up occasionally.
Life in Logging Camps
Maine became known as “The Pine Tree State,” and it doesn’t take a genius (whether very stable or not) to figure out why. The state was covered in magnificent Eastern white pine trees, some 200 feet tall.
The first sawmills appeared in the 1630s. Easternwhitepine.org tells us that “By the 19th century, Bangor was the lumber capital of the world, home to over 300 sawmills.” A large labour force of loggers was needed to fell the trees to feed the mills.
Most of the wood cutting was done in the winter. It was brutally hard and dangerous work and the pay was poor, but the men had few options. They lived in communal bunkhouses that they shared with lice. As personal hygiene was very limited, the stench inside must have been eye-watering. The food was a never-ending diet of pork, beans, biscuits, and tea.
As the lumberjacks endured appalling living conditions the timber barons, such as William Shaw, had luxurious accommodation.
The Jumping Frenchmen
Many men could not tolerate the harsh conditions and left giving rise to the saying that the camps had three crews: “The ones working, the ones leaving, and the ones coming to take the place of those leaving.”
Among those arriving were French-Canadians from north of the border.
In the late 1800s, reports started to emerge from the logging camps about a very strange behaviour exhibited by some of the French-Canadians; if they were startled in any way they started jumping uncontrollably. Other exaggerated startle responses included “screaming, flailing the arms, hitting, or throwing objects” (National Organization of Rare Disorders, NORD).
Word reached neurologist Dr. George Millard Beard and he headed to Moosehead Lake in central Maine where there were cases. He saw for himself the strange antics of these woodsmen but was at a loss to explain them. He noted that the syndrome began in young children and lasted a lifetime although symptoms became milder with age. It almost never occurred in women.
Beard wrote that “The individuals were not able to prevent themselves from starting, striking, dropping, jumping, and repeating words or sounds once another person startled them with sudden exclamations or commands. Some, when addressed quickly in a language foreign to them, would echo the phrase, even to the point of quoting from the Odyssey or Iliad.”
Robert E. Pike wrote about life in the logging camps; he suggested the leaping was caused by inbreeding in French-Canadian villages. In his 1967 book Tall Trees, Tough Men he noted that “If a jumper was shaving, or whistling, or just sitting on a riverbank, and someone came up behind him suddenly and cried, ‘Jump into the river!’ (or ‘into the fire,’ if there was a fire), in he’d jump.”
It was quite common among other loggers to prank the jumping Frenchmen into their extreme startle responses; apparently, they found it amusing. Experts say that if sufferers experience an increased frequency of the startle response it becomes more severe.
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The Normal Startle Response
The fight-or-flight response is perfectly normal and is an evolutionary adaptation that has kept our species alive.
When we perceive a danger, such as a loud, unexpected noise or the sudden appearance of a predator, our brains react automatically. A series of split-second messages arrive at the adrenal glands with an instruction to release adrenaline and cortisol hormones. These trip physiological reactions: quickened heart beat, dilated pupils, sweating, tensed muscles, heightened oxygen intake, etc.
All these reaction are aimed at getting our bodies ready to deal with threats and are outside our control. Once we’ve assessed the danger and found it to be insignificant our bodies return to normal.
What Causes the Jumping Disorder?
Despite more than a century’s worth of research, “the exact cause of Jumping Frenchmen of Maine is unknown, it is believed to be a neuropsychiatric disorder” (NORD).
It has been suggested the disorder is caused by culturally-specific operant conditioning; an example of this is a reward for performing a task, such as a child being told it can play only after completing homework. But, connecting the Jumping Frenchman to this stimulus physiologically has not been possible.
Other researchers postulate it may be caused by a genetic mutation that happens after conception. Again, this is only a supposition.
In the 1960s, a Canadian neurologist named Reuben Rabinovitch said the syndrome sprang from the conditions in lumber camps. Men were isolated and bored, he theorized, and the jumping was a conditioned reflex to their environment. The obvious question is, then why were only French-Canadian lumberjacks affected?
The fact is that the mystery of the behaviour of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine remains just that―a mystery.
- This strange syndrome has been observed in other cultures. In Louisiana, it’s called Rajun Cajuns, a name that has been co-opted for several other purposes. A Case of the Leaping Ague of Angus-shire was described by the Scottish surgeon John Crichton in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1818.
- The French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who gave his name to the syndrome characterized by involuntary twitches, tics, and swearing, suggested the Jumping Frenchman disorder was of a similar origin. Later research has found the two afflictions are probably not connected.
- After a winter of cutting down trees, many of the lumberjacks had the dangerous job of driving logs down rivers to sawmills.
- “The Pine Tree State: A History of Lumber in Maine.” S.A. Rogers, easternwhitepine.org, July 15, 2013.
- “A Loggers Life in the Maine Woods.” Michael Rochester, maineforestry.net, September 6, 2015.
- “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.” National Organization of Rare Disorders, undated.
- “The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine Lumber Camps.” New England Historical Society, 2020.
- “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.” Medicalbag.com, December 4, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on November 30, 2020:
Weird stuff once again, Mr. Taylor. Never heard about this story either. You do keep coming out with interesting stuff. Thank You.
"Jumping Frenchmen" lol Cheers!
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 30, 2020:
I am learning all the time through your articles, Rupert. What a strange and unexplainable malady. Thanks for sharing.