In February last, I was riding in a sleigh from Shirely to Greenville, in Maine…Riding just behind us in a rude pung were two Canadian Frenchmen whom [Mr. Long] had hired to work in his [saw] mill. At the foot of a long hill, I sprang from the sleigh to warm my feet by walking and, as I leapt out, the board seat, on the extreme end of which my friend sat, tipped up and he fell out into the deep snow. He jumped up and laughed.
Just then I saw the Frenchmen tumble backward out of their sleigh, exactly as Mr. Long had done. It was a ludicrous mimicry and I couldn’t understand it…”Well,” said Long, “I had no idea those fellows were jumpers…These are jumping Frenchmen. They tumbled out of that seat just because they saw me tumble, and they couldn’t have helped it to save their lives. This country Is full of jumpers.”
The Princeton (Minnesota) Union, Aug. 14, 1878, reprinted from the New York Sun.
There you have one of the earliest accounts of the phenomenon that came to be known as “the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.” Several eyewitnesses described French-Canadian woodsmen being afflicted with the syndrome over the course of the 19th and early 20th century. The symptoms are these – a tendency to startle easily, and a willingness to follow instructions when startled. Later in the same piece, the journalist describes telling a “jumper” to fling a milk pitcher at the wall, and inducing another to repeat what the journalist had said.
The first academic study of this peculiar illness was conducted by Dr. Geroge Beard, a Boston neurologist and psychiatrist, for the American Neurological Association in 1878 (it seems possible, although unconfirmed, that Beard himself is the author of the newspaper article cited above). Beard had worked with a number of interesting cases, and had even defended Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, on grounds of insanity.
Beard is probably responsible for the condition being connected to Maine (since that’s where he encountered it). But my own scouring of online newspaper articles shows it was more widespread, and that accounts predated Beard’s study. An article appeared in the Aroostook Pioneer of 1861 by a Rev. M. R. Keep describing the “jumping Frenchmen” in Madawaska. An 1898 account in the New York Sun recounts sufferers in the woods of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Canadian Northwest. In 1894, the New York Journal reported the disease “becoming epidemic” in upstate New York.
19th-century observers were at a loss to ascribe a cause to the jumping. In 1885, Giles de la Tourette included the phenomenon in his examples of “tics” associated with what we now call Tourette’s Syndrome. A recent study by Marie-Hélène and Jean-Marc Saint-Hillaire of Montréal concluded that rather than being a neurological or a genetic disorder, it was primarily the result of conditioned behavior reinforced by living in isolated logging communities. This perhaps explains why examples of the syndrome are so infrequent today (the Saint-Hillaires found only eight examples to observe directly in Quebec). On the other hand, if the same symptoms were present from British Columbia through New York and Maine, it seems unlikely that mere group reinforcement was the cause. French-Canadians and Franco-Americans do have certain genetic predispositions (due to their relatively close-knit population and the small founding population of New France). A 1993 Newsday article which appeared in the Bangor Daily News suggested the presence of a “startle gene” could be responsible. It also seems reasonable that loggers could be affected by a neurological condition as a result of the sudden, loud noises involved in felling trees. (Sources differ on the prevalence of the condition outside Franco-American groups, and in women as well as men).
Whatever the cause, the reaction of the general population is telling. “They like to tease one another, or ‘jump’ one another, as it is called there. This is their principal source of fun,” wrote the author of the 1878 article. It’s not hard to imagine that being a source of entertainment during the long nights among a group of guys at the logging camp. But, in true 19th-century tradition, visitors weren’t above poking fun at the afflicted, and hosts seem to have delighted in having jumpers “perform” for their guests. The sufferers, as might be expected, were often less than amused – “they were surly and indisposed to talk,” wrote the 1878 correspondent. In 1885, a reporter for the New York World, noting that “Many New Yorkers are beginning to appreciate the advantages of the Aroostook as a summer resort, and it is probable that…chief among the novelties mentioned” by hotels will be the jumpers. As a result, some towns and logging companies would punish those who provoked the jumpers.
The condition was often no laughing matter. In 1892, “Tommy Pooler” (perhaps “Poulin”), a young man of 19 in northern Maine, was apparently tickled to death, having suffered a hemorrhage; numerous incidents involving injuries or fatalities with axes are also mentioned (here and here). Apart from the Victorian proclivity for mocking those with disabilities (think freak shows), prejudice against Franco-Americans may also have led to the syndrome being a source of amusement. Sufferers are variously described as “unkempt, half-clad, and so ignorant that not one in two can read, print, or write his name,” while they spoke a “mongrel French” and, inevitably the phrase “leaping like frogs” was employed. One correspondent bemoaned that the condition made its sufferers “almost useless as servants.” It’s not hard to see why people felt free to tease the jumpers, even as Rev. Kemp noted that the more one was “jumped”, the worse his condition became – “the proportion of jumpers, and their aptitude for the business, has very much increased since our American lumbermen have had the opportunity to practice them.”
Given the relative rarity of the syndrome today, and the mythical nature of the “Jumping Frenchman” condition, we may never know the true cause of the condition. Nonetheless, it remains a fascinating chapter in Franco-American history, both for the unusual nature of the condition itself, and for what it tells us about those who observed it.