George Miller Beard was born in 1839. He attended Yale University, graduating in 1862, and in 1866 earned a medical degree at the school now affiliated with Columbia University. He’d become one of his generation’s top neurologists during his subsequent career, and developed many theories on how the brain works — and fails. His mind was curious about curious minds. So when rumors of an extraordinary breakdown of the human psyche came to his attention, Beard went to investigate.
What he found is still unexplained.
In the 1870s, a group of French-Canadian lumberjacks were employed in Northern Maine, cutting down trees as lumberjacks do. Some of these men were exhibiting weird behaviors, though, and what Beard found was even stranger than advertised. When startled, Beard discovered, the lumberjacks would jump or yell or scream, and to a degree well beyond what would normally be expected. They’d also often exhibit echolalia — the rote repetition of whatever sounds or words one hears — or the mindless mimicking of physical movements, called echopraxia. Even stranger, some of those affected would actually follow instructions given to them in a terse, sudden manner. In an 1880 speech, republished in part by io9, Beard summarized this part of what he saw:
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.
Beard, despite his first-hand chance to observe this weird behavior, didn’t have an explanation for it. And for some reason, instead of calling this “Beard’s Disease,” the medical community has taken to calling it “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine,” which is an odd name for a mental illness. According to the National Organization of Rare Disorders (NORD), the exact cause of Jumping Frenchmen of Maine is unknown. It could be genetic — Wikipedia notes that of 50 cases in Northern Maine, fourteen “were found in four families” and “another set of cases were found in a single family where the father, his two sons, and his two grandchildren exhibited ‘jumping’ behavior.” On the other hand, the fact that almost all of these cases occurred in the same area may mean there are environmental causes.
Regardless, there’s little risk of contracting the disease. While similar symptom sets have appeared in other places — NORD lists Louisiana, Yemen, the Philippines, and Siberia as other places — Jumping Frenchmen of Maine is so rare that it has, by and large, avoided study.
From the Archives: Almost Saved by the Bell: How Alexander Graham Bell almost saved President Garfield from Guiteau’s bullet — and perhaps would have, but for Garfield’s mattress.
Take the Quiz: A number of U.S. Presidents either died in office or avoided assassinations (or both). Can you match the events to the appropriate President?
Related: “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard. An incredibly well-regarded biography of James A. Garfield and the story behind his assassination. 4.7 stars on nearly 1,500 reviews, and plaudits from dozens of editorial outlets.