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The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine

In the late 1870s, something very strange happened to the French-Canadians lumberjacks in Moosehead Lake, Maine. When startled, they would jump in the air, imitate those around them, and even obey random commands. This was the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine disorder.

American neurologist William Beard found that the disorder began in childhood, was familial, rarely occurred in females, persisted throughout life, and was characterized by a grotesque and violent jump in response to sudden noise or startle.

Dr. Beard relates the following:

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… He also threw away his pipe when rolling it with tobacco when he was slapped upon the shoulder. Two jumpers standing near each other were told to strike, and they struck each other very forcibly… When the commands are uttered in a quick loud voice the jumper repeats the order. When told to strike, he strikes, when told to throw it, he throws it, whatever he has in his hands… They could not help repeating the word or sound that came from the person that ordered them any more than they could help striking, dropping, throwing, jumping, or starting; all of these phenomena were indeed but parts of the general condition known as, jumping.

It was not necessary that the sound should come from a human being: any sudden or unexpected noise, as the explosion of a gun or pistol, the falling of a window, or the slamming of a door, provided it be unexpected and loud enough, would cause these jumpers to exhibit some one or all of these phenomena…It was dangerous to startle them in any way when they had an axe or knife in their hand. All of the jumpers agree that it tires them to be jumped and they dread it, but they were constantly annoyed by their companions

One summer Beard had no trouble finding 50 cases, including 14 in one family.  He said “the woods were full of them.”

Terry Pfau DO, HMD

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