In 1880, Dr. George Miller Beard boarded a train for Moosehead Lake in Maine to see for himself the strange lumberjacks known as Jumping Frenchmen.
Many lumber camps had them. The jumping Frenchmen tended to be shy, ticklish French-Canadians who responded dramatically when startled. They were often the victims of practical jokes.
Beard was a pioneering neurologist who defined the term ‘neurasthenia’ as a medical condition. He went to Moosehead Lake to see jumping Frenchmen with his own eyes. He found what he was looking for.
“When told to strike, he strikes, when told to throw it, he throws it, whatever he has in his hands,” wrote Beard.
But Beard couldn’t figure out what caused the Frenchmen to jump.
A century later, researchers were still trying to figure it out.
Robert Pike, who chronicled life in the Maine lumber camps, wrote that old woodsmen ascribed the Jumping Frenchman syndrome to inbreeding among French-Canadians, who seldom married outside their small villages.
The Jumping Frenchmen were a source of merriment among the loggers.
“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,” wrote Pike in Tall Trees, Tough Men.
“If someone stepped up behind him and tickled him lightly, he’d jump through the roof… Strangely, the victims of such mean practical jokes never got made about them.”
A cook who was a jumper was an irresistible target. “The men would wait until he was about to place a dish of soup or some other spilly food on the table and then say, “Drop it!” and down it would come, right down the neck of the nearest man,” wrote Pike.
Or if a line of loggers were sitting on the deacon seat – a bench running the length of the bunkhouse – a lumberjack would pretend to strike his neighbor. “Every jumper in the line, if he saw the motion, would turn and strike at his neighbor,” wrote Pike. “Or a man would take his pipe from his mouth and pretend to throw it on the floor. Then the jumpers could not help dashing down their own pipes.”
Beard was struck by the forced obedience shown by the jumping Frenchmen as well as echolalia – the repetition of noises or phrases. Beard recited Latin to a lumberjack, “and 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 violent muscular motion. They could not help repeating the word or sound that came from the person that ordered them…”
Beard found the jumping Frenchman syndrome started in childhood, lasted a lifetime and rarely occurred in women. Of 50 jumping Frenchmen in northern Maine, he found 14 cases in four families.
He didn’t conclude the syndrome was genetic, but speculated it was a temporary degeneration that resulted from life in the isolated lumber camp.
Beard’s research spread around the world, and a search for global variations of Jumping Frenchman syndrome uncovered latah in Malaysia, imu among the Japanese Ainu, miryachit in Russia and ramenajana in Madagascar.
Gilles de la Tourette translated Beard’s findings, and concluded Jumping Frenchman syndrome was part of a group of convulsive tic illnesses that included Tourette syndrome.
Neurologists picked up Beard’s research in the 1960s, debating whether Jumping Frenchman syndrome was a nervous disorder or a habit.
They’re Very Bored
In 1963, Harold Stevens studied a 59-year-old French-Canadian man whose father had worked as a lumberjack in northern Maine. He was easily startled and jumped about 10 inches off the bed when struck by a reflex hammer. He reacted the same way when the telephone rang.
Two years later, a Canadian neurologist named Reuben Rabinovitch wrote about his childhood experiences with Jumping Frenchmen in Quebec. When lumberjacks set up camp near his village in the spring, the children would play the horse-kicking game. Sneaking up on a jumper, a child would suddenly poke him while making a neighing sound. The victim would jump up and shout angrily.
Rabinovitch concluded the Jumping Frenchman syndrome was a conditioned reflex that grew out of the isolation and boredom of life in the lumber camp. When the traditional logging camp died out, so did jumping. In 1986, two Canadian neurologists studied eight jumpers in Quebec. They found the behavior started when the men began work as lumberjacks.
With thanks to Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior by Hilary Evans, Robert E. Bartholomew. This story was updated in 2023.
Image: Collier, J., photographer. (1943) Spring pulpwood drive on the Brown Company timber holdings in Maine.Feeding logs through the sluice at Long Pond. A key log is caught with twisted point of a pike, and as the woodman pulls this log others are carried with it into the sluiceway. United States Long Pond Maine, 1943. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017855658/..