The Mysterious Jumping Axemen of Maine

The Mysterious Jumping Axemen of Maine
SourceFlickr CC

Why you should care

Because it’s not always a good idea to sneak up on others.

When asked to throw a knife, the startled lumberjack threw it so quickly and so hard that it stuck in the house opposite. At the same time, he repeated the violent order with an alarming cry.

Humans are equipped at birth with primitive startle reflexes that cause babies to flail uncontrollably in a fight-or-flight fashion. And while most folks outgrow this, a group of 50 French-Canadian lumberjacks — full-grown men — living in the quiet mountains of Moosehead Lake, Maine, and northern New Hampshire in the 19th century exhibited bizarre reactions to being surprised, baffling everyone from neighbors to the world’s most prestigious scientists.

Back in the late 1800s, these men who spent their days hacking at 50-foot trees with axes would jump uncontrollably in the air or let out a yelp in response to being startled. They were so prone to suggestion that they would obey any command given suddenly, even if it meant hurting themselves or a loved one. Their rare disorder exhibited in jerky limb movements and was dubbed simply the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine by American neurologist George Miller Beard, who experimented on the jumpers in 1880.

Whether they’re remembered as pranksters or victims, the jumpers offer a rare peek into “a fascinating part of our American cultural heritage.”

Beard found that whatever order he gave would be obeyed so long as his commands were “uttered in a quick, loud voice,” according to an article published about his findings in the British Medical Journal. Upon his command, one lumberjack threw a knife at a nearby house, crying out in a way that the doctor likened to hysteria or epilepsy. In another experiment, Beard asked two jumpers to hit each other, and they responded by “forcibly” striking one another. The doctor even tried shouting out quotes of Virgil’s Aneid and Homer’s lliad, thinking that such obscure wordings would be unfamiliar to the jumpers and therefore draw no response. The lumberjacks were aware of their actions but couldn’t help but react. It was so bad that one nearly cut his own throat when he heard a door slam while shaving.

The mysterious syndrome, now believed to have died out, had no known cause. Some experts thought it was genetic — 14 of the 50 cases came from four families, according to Beard — or the result of certain medical conditions that can cause excessive startling, such as magnesium deficiency, tetanus or degenerative brain disorders. But others have theorized that the lumberjacks, who were mostly shy, quiet types living in a very remote region, were extremely sensitive to their cultural surroundings.

The men may have found that their “jumping” entertained the group, according to a journal article by neurologists Marie-Hélène Saint-Hilaire and her father, Jean-Marc Saint-Hilaire, written in 1986 after they met with Canadian jumpers. “There was nothing ever specifically wrong with these people,” Marie-Hélène tells OZY, noting that none had sought medical attention. The lumberjacks would spend six months in rural camps, with no running water or electricity, and took to picking the jumpiest among them to startle by way of entertainment. “It was meant to be fun, a game,” Saint-Hilaire says. The one who jumped the most, she says, “got a lot of attention, so in a sense it was positive reinforcement.” But what started as fun and games descended into a nervous condition that ultimately burdened them all.

Very little is known about the condition, and academic research largely rests on Beard’s 140-year-old notes. Similar syndromes have been found in disparate parts of the world, from Miryachit in Siberia, to Latah in Malaysia and even the “Ragin’ Cajuns” — a Louisiana nickname for those afflicted with the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine — but some academics say these are probably down to cultural conditioning rather than medical problems.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist and author of several books on movement disorders, says that while the origin of this “so-called disorder is a classic example of the nature vs. nurture debate,” he is “firmly in the environment camp.” He doesn’t believe a medical condition drives the reflex and says it’s “inappropriate” to label Jumping Frenchmen a disorder when the evidence points to its being a culturally conditioned habit. “I am convinced that Jumping is an imaginary disorder” written about “without full regard for its social and cultural context,” he explains. He thinks jumping began as a local way of expressing oneself, and it simply caught on.

Beard’s final diagnosis was neurasthenia, a condition caused by “exhausted nerves,” according to history of medicine professor Howard I. Kushner’s book A Cursing Brain? The Histories of Tourette Syndrome. The difficulty of jumping every time they were startled proved tiresome to the lumberjacks and was unfortunate given that they were wielding sharp implements most of the day, but they seem to have disappeared entirely from the region since Saint-Hilaire’s research.

What perhaps started as a game became an act the lumberjacks “dreaded,” according to Beard’s notes. And whether they’re remembered as pranksters or victims, the jumpers offer a rare peek into “a fascinating part of our American cultural heritage” that has since “died out,” Bartholomew says.

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