originally published May 11, 2012

As a public service message to my readers, I’d like to inform you that you are all somehow diseased. For most of you, this extends no further than the general diseases of our society: inherent greed, chronic materialism, finding the films of Katherine Heigl to be funny, and so on. But some of you are enduring far greater tribulations than the rest of us.

My intent is not to mock the afflicted (unless you have the Heigl thing, then you’re open to full-contact derision), but merely to offer the occasional scarcely discussed disorder to allow you all to self-diagnose by eventually finding one which probably mostly pertains to you.

If you happen to be a French-Canadian working as a lumberjack in the state of Maine (and I’m aware that this constitutes roughly 37% of my reading audience), you may want to get your nerves checked out. In 1878, George Miller Beard discovered a rare disorder in which the ‘startle’ reflex is exaggerated. Not being a slave to the ‘-itis’ or ‘-ilia’ school of psychological condition naming, Beard dubbed this the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.

Beard was an American neurologist in the late 19th century. The Wikipedia article rather insensitively mentions that he “immediately jumped” at the chance to witness this phenomenon. Ha ha.

The exaggeration in the startle reflex is not limited to wild jerking of one’s limbs. The person suffering from this disorder can also be bizarrely susceptible to suggestion. They might uncontrollably mimic sounds and speech around them in that moment of nervous frizzle, or they might spontaneously imitate the body movements of whomever is around them. In some cases, a command issued suddenly in that instant of neuro-electric overload might be followed, even if that command is punching a loved one in the face.

Now that’s a reflex response.

Take the case of Goosey Gus, a factory worker in Maryland in the early years of the twentieth century. His coworkers loved that Gus was beyond ticklish; a poke in the ribs would provoke this kind of response, even to the point of having him swear wildly at his boss. Gus was normally a quiet, soft-spoken fellow – this was like a nervous twitch taken to an extreme level. And of course, being men, his co-workers took advantage of Gus’s condition as often as possible.

Another example of disorder exploitation for the purpose of pranking came while Beard was observing the lumberjacks. One curiously sensitive guy was tending to his horse. His buddy slipped into the stall next door, gave him a poke and emitted a loud neighing sound. The lumberjack leapt away violently, like he’d just been booted by a wayward hoof. Given the lack of entertainment I’d imagine they’d get in a New England lumberjack camp in the 1800s, I’d bet ol’ Leapy Pete was insanely popular.

Here’s another one. A 27-year –old man, let’s call him Maurice. Maurice was chilling, cutting up his tobacco with a knife, because that’s the kind of manly thing that lumberjacks do. Someone slapped Maurice on the shoulder and told Maurice to throw his knife. Maurice jolted in surprise and flung his knife into a wooden beam on the opposite side of the room.

Okay, you’ve got a man who’s pretty jumpy, and you’ve just made him fling his knife across the room. If you’re a guy, you’re probably going to be thinking, “Let’s see what else we can make him do.”

They waited until Maurice had calmed down and started filling his pipe. Another slap-n-throw, and his pipe ended up flung into the grass. Laughter ensued, though I don’t imagine Maurice was having as much fun as the dopes observing him. They tried once more but with a command to smack someone in the face. Maurice obliged, though it’s not too far-fetched to believe he was probably just itching for the chance to do that anyway.

Dr. Beard observed fifty cases of Jumping Frenchmen of Maine syndrome. Most of them, not surprisingly, were observed in northern Maine, with a strong indication that it might be a genetic condition. Fourteen of those fifty cases were pulled from four families, including one set of a father, son, and two grandkids exhibiting the signs. I’m just saying, that’s the household I want to be visiting when an earthquake hits.

Despite the small and remote distribution of this condition, it actually had a huge effect on the medical world. Beard’s writings inspired Georges Gilles de la Tourette to do some digging of his own, eventually leading to the discovery of Tourette’s Syndrome. Of course, unlike Tourette’s, the wild response brought on by Jumping Frenchmen of Maine syndrome is always provoked.

Other similar finds around the world suggest a further reach than the plaid-sporting axe wielders of the far northeast. Latah is a Southeast Asian condition in which one enters a trance-like state upon being startled, repeating movements or speech in a daze. Miryachit is another extreme jumping response, discovered in Siberia. A South African transport driver in the early 1900s had the automatic startle response of copying any spoken words or musical notes heard at the moment of surprise, without any ability to prevent himself from doing so.

Neurasthenia can feature a startle response as well – this is another of Beard’s specialties, occurring mainly in western urban environments as a multi-symptom condition caused by exhaustion. Freud had his fingers in this one too – believing one of the principle causes to be ‘non-completed coitus’ or an ‘infrequency of emissions.’ Leave it to Freud to go there.

On the far range of the spectrum you have hyperekplexia, an ultra-rare neurological disease that kicks in during infancy, leading to an abnormal muscle tension that will make you less flexible and prone to wild startlings for your entire life.

More recent studies have suggested that Jumping Frenchman of Maine syndrome may not be a physical ailment. While certainly real, the limited documentation of first-hand witnesses and the fact that those who suffer from it seem inordinately employed as lumberjacks suggest that it might be psychological.

Just don’t tell that to Maurice unless he sees you coming. It ain’t worth a knife in the throat.

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