Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/December 1880/Experiments with the Jumpers of Maine



ABOUT two years ago my attention was directed by my friend Mr. W. A. Croffut to the fact that, in the northern part of Maine, especially in the region of Moosehead Lake, there were to be found a class of people who presented most incredible nervous phenomena.

These people were called in the language of that region "Jumpers" or "Jumping Frenchmen." It was claimed that all, or most of them, were of French descent and of Canadian birth, and that their occupation was mainly that of lumbering in the Maine woods. Mr. Croffut introduced me to D. W. Craig, Esq., a gentleman who had spent much time in that portion of Maine, and who had amused himself with watching and playing with these unfortunates.

In accordance with the request of Mr. Croffut and Mr. Craig, I began at that time an investigation of the subject through all accessible sources, and this year I visited Moosehead Lake in company with my friend Dr. Edward Steese, and made the investigations herein recorded.

I found two of the Jumpers employed about the hotel. With one of them, a young man twenty-seven years of age, I made the following experiments:

1. While sitting in a chair, with a knife in his hand, with which he was about to cut his tobacco, he was struck sharply on the shoulder, and told to "throw it." Almost as quick as the explosion of a pistol, he threw the knife, and it stuck in a beam opposite; at the same time he repeated the order "throw it" with a certain cry as of terror or alarm.

2. A moment after, while filling his pipe with tobacco, he was again slapped on the shoulder and told to "throw it." He threw the tobacco and the pipe on the grass, at least a rod away, with the same cry and the same suddenness and explosiveness of movement.

3. When standing near one of the employees of the house, he was told to "strike," and he struck him violently on the cheek. I took this person into the quiet of my own room, only my friend being with me, in order that the experiments might be made without interruption or disturbance. I sat down by him, explained to him the object of my visit, conversed with him in regard to his family history and his own personal experience and observation of his peculiarity, and every now and then, during the conversation, I struck him without warning on the shoulder or on the back, or mildly kicked him; and every time he was so struck he moved his shoulders upward slightly, sometimes moving both the shoulders and the arms, with or without the peculiar cry. He knew that I was studying his case; he knew that the kicks and strokes came from me, and yet he could not avoid making a slight jump or motion, as though startled.

4. While holding a tumbler in his hand, standing near to him, I told him to "throw it." He dashed the tumbler with great violence to the floor, and then began deliberately picking up the pieces in a very quiet and patient way. Whenever I struck him quietly, easily, and in such a way that he could see I was to strike him, he made only a slight jump or movement; but when the strike or kick was unexpected, though very mild in character, he could not restrain the jumping or jerking motion; but the cry did not always appear.

5. A handkerchief was suddenly thrown before his eyes by a person walking stealthily from behind. He jumped, just as though he had been struck.

Another case in the house, a lad sixteen years of age, was not so bad as this other, but still presented all these phenomena: he jumped when he heard any sound from behind that was sharp and unexpected, and struck and threw when ordered to do so. The crowd around the hotel, partly for my benefit, kept him constantly teased and annoyed, so that when he approached he had a stealthy, suspicious, and timid look in his eye, as though he expected each moment to be jumped.

6. This man, while playing with one of his mates, had thrown him to the ground; some one approached near and commanded "Strike him," and he struck him very hard and explosively, with both hands at a time.

7. When standing by a window, he was suddenly commanded to "jump" by a person on the other side of the window. He jumped straight up, half a foot off the floor, with a loud cry, repeating the order which had been given to him,

8. When the two Jumpers were close together, they were commanded to "strike": each struck the other simultaneously—not mild or polite, but severe and painful blows. I took one of these men to my room and quietly conversed with him, and made the same experiments with him as with the other case. I found him much less irritable than the other, and he needed usually stronger excitation to produce the phenomena.

I experimented with him in the phenomenon of repeating language that was addressed to him. When the command was uttered in a quick, loud voice, he repeated the order as he heard it, at the same time that he executed it. When told to strike, he said "Strike" at the same time that he struck; when told to throw it, he said "Throw it" at the same time that he threw whatever was in his hand. It made no difference what language was used. I tried him with the first part of the first line of Homer's "Iliad," and with the first part of Virgil's "Æneid," languages, of course, of which he knew nothing, and he repeated quickly, almost violently, the sound as it was uttered—"Menin Aida," the first part of the first line of the "Iliad," and "Arma-vi," the first part of the first line of Virgil. In order to have it repeated, it was necessary that the command should be very short, as well as quickly and strongly uttered. He would not repeat a whole line, or even half a line, but simply a word or two. In these, as in the mind-reading experiments, I was able to establish my conclusions by exclusion—that is, by proving that only the involuntary action of mind on body could produce the phenomena.

These experiments were repeated again and again, under various conditions at different times, in such a way as to satisfy myself, absolutely, that the six elements of error that apply to all experiments with living human beings were all eliminated, and that the facts obtained were the solid residuum of an exact scientific investigation.[2]

Many strange things are done by these Jumpers. One of those with whom I experimented came very near cutting his throat the day before I reached the lake. He was shaving, and the door slammed suddenly behind him; he jumped, and, had the razor been held in a different way, he might have inflicted a severe wound. One of these Jumpers being surprised by an order to "strike," while standing before a window, struck his fist right through the glass, cutting it severely. These Jumpers have been known to strike their fists against a red-hot stove; they have been known to jump into the fire, as well as into water; indeed, no painfulness or peril of position has any effect on them; they are as powerless as apoplectics or hysterics, if not more so; the absolute victims of the orders that are given them, or of the surprises that are played upon them; they must do as they are told, though it kill them, or though it kill others. I can find no evidence that the presence of water or of fire will interfere, even in the slightest degree, with the motions which they are compelled to make. As has been made apparent by the above description, it is not necessary that the surprises should come from any human being; it is not necessary that they should be ordered to strike or to jump; any sound, from any source, that comes upon them with sufficient severity and suddenness, for which they are not forewarned and forearmed, may cause them to jump and to cry. One of those on whom I experimented told me that the falling of a tree in the woods, when unexpected, would have the same effect upon him. He said that one time he was so alarmed by the sudden crash of a tree that he not only jumped, but was perfectly entranced, so that he could not move, although the tree did not fall upon him. The explosion of a gun or pistol is almost sure to excite these Jumpers. The screech of a steam whistle is especially obnoxious to them, few of them, so far as I have been able to learn, having been able to withstand it. On one of the lake-steamers in which I returned from the hotel, there was a Jumper who, when the screech was heard, jumped right up, so that he nearly hit his head on the upper deck. As the steamer neared the landing and came to a place where he knew the whistle would sound again, he was warned to prepare himself, and he did so with such success, that on the first screech he jumped scarcely any; on the second, however, despite his care, he raised his shoulders perceptibly, but did not jump. In many of these cases, it may be observed, a simple raising of the shoulders, a sudden impulsive movement, is all that is done, there being no cry and no movement of the hands to throw or to strike.

Although called "Jumpers," they only jump in a minority of the experiments, the word jumping really including all such phenomena as lifting the shoulders, raising the hands, striking, throwing, crying, and tumbling. Jumpers have been known to fall head over heels over an embankment on which they were sitting, on suddenly hearing the whistle of a locomotive; they have been known to tumble head over heels over one another, when a number of them were sitting near each other.

The order to "drop it" they are compelled to obey, as well as that to strike or to jump or to throw. On one of the steamers on the Rangeley Lakes there was a waiter who was a Jumper, and when told to "drop it" he would drop whatever he had in his hands, even if it were a plate of baked beans, on the head of one of the guests. The Jumpers with whom I experimented exhibited the same phenomena.

These phenomena suggest epilepsy, particularly in their explosive character and in the nature of the cry. The hands strike or throw with a quick, impulsive movement, which is very hard to imitate artificially. They go off like a piece of machinery; it is more like the explosion of a gun than the movement of the limbs of even an angry man; and the cry suggests that which we hear in hysteria and in epilepsy. The face does not always exhibit any change, but in some cases there is a temporary flushing, and in others a temporary pallor.

All the Jumpers agree that it tires them to be very much jumped; that they feel worse after it, more or less exhausted and nervous; they all dislike to be jumped, and avoid it when it is possible; the more they are jumped the worse they are; and that after a while in the woods, where they are constantly teased and annoyed after the day's labor is over, they are made worse; whereas, after long periods of rest they become better, are less irritable and jump less, and do not jump so easily on excitement.

Nature of this Disease.—What, now, is the pathology of this jumping? How are we to rank these phenomena among the neuroses? What relation do they bear to the great family of diseases? Are they functional or structural? Are they physical or psychical? The answer is clear: jumping is a psychical or mental form of nervous disease, and is of a functional character. Its best analogue is psychical or mental hysteria, the so-called "servant-girl hysteria," as known to us in modern days, and as very widely known during the epidemics of the middle ages. Like mental or psychical hysteria, this jumping occurs not in the weak, or the nervous, or the anæmic, but in those, as a rule, in at least good if not firm and unusual health; there are no stronger men in the woods, or anywhere, than some of these Jumpers. Although some of them are injured by being excessively jumped for the time at least, yet to the majority, if not nearly all, this injury can not be said to be of a serious character. It does not apparently shorten life, and does not bring on, so far as I can learn, any other form of nervous disease. It can not, therefore, be said to be in any sense a disease of nervous debility. Those who suffer most from it are the very opposite of neurasthenics or anæmics; they have none of the symptoms detailed in my work on nervous exhaustion; they are full-blooded and strong-nerved, capable of working hard and long at the most toilsome service, and will hold themselves up full and sturdy and enduring, side by side with the hardiest men in the nation. Like "servant-girl hysteria," and like certain forms of chorea or "jerks," as they are called, which appear or have appeared in certain religious revivals, like the "Holy Rollers"[3] as they were called in the religious revivals of northern New Hampshire, these Jumpers are contributions to psychology more than to pathology. Far out of the range of the aided senses, far beyond the reach of the microscope, or perhaps of the spectroscope, there may be molecular changes or disturbances which manifest themselves in these jumpings and strikings and throwings as a result and correlative. But for the present, possibly for all time, we can only study this subject psychologically; we can only approach it satisfactorily from the psychological side. Only those who clearly recognize the two distinct types of hysteria, the neurasthenic or anæmic form, which may be called physical hysteria, and the mental or psychical form, which may be called psychical hysteria, can understand the nature of this peculiar malady of the Jumpers; but those who do comprehend and recognize these two types of hysteria will have little difficulty in comprehending the general nature of this jumping and its position among the neuroses. Some of the cases of hysteria major on which Charcot has experimented with his metals and magnets belong, as I am persuaded from personal observation, to psychical or mental rather than to physical diseases. I can find in the families of those who suffer from jumping no proof of any form of functional or organic nervous disease.

Jumping is, therefore, a trancoidal condition, exhibiting a part of the phenomena of trance, and bearing the same relation to trance that certain epileptoidal conditions bear to epilepsy.

Although the phenomena exhibited by the Jumpers are analogous to those of mesmeric trance, of mental hysteria of the "Jerkers" and "Holy Rollers" in revivals, they yet differ from all these and all allied forms of nervous disorder in these two respects:

1. The momentary character of the manifestations.

In but a second or so all the acts of the Jumper—striking, throwing, dropping, crying, jerking, or jumping—are over completely, and he is about in the same condition as before he was surprised. The explosion of the Jumper, like the explosion of a revolver, is sudden and instantaneous; and like a revolver, also, the Jumper is at once ready for a new explosion on proper excitation. If we look at a Jumper five seconds after he has been jumped, we see no sign or indication of what he has just done, or of what he can instantly be made to do.

On the other hand, the phenomena of trance, of mental hysteria, of the "Jerkers" or "Holy Rollers" may last in any given case from several minutes to several hours or days.[4]

Recent German investigations have, by an interesting coincidence, demonstrated that subjects in the mesmeric trance sometimes exhibit the phenomenon of repeating automatically what is said to them. Berger produces this effect by laying his warm hand on the neck of the mesmerized subject.

2. In the persistence and permanence of the liability to be excited.

After once the habit of jumping is formed, the subject, though varying in susceptibility at different times, is yet always capable of displaying the phenomena in a greater or less degree at any moment: once a Jumper, always a Jumper, expresses the prognosis. Epidemics of jerking and rolling are, on the contrary, limited in time and in their sphere, disappearing and dying utterly away with the excitements that give rise to them, and the habit of hysteria or of being entranced may also be outgrown.

Psychologically, these Jumpers, so far as I have been able to see or to learn, are modest, quiet, retiring, deficient in power of self-possession, conceit, and push, but no more so than many others in various races. I had been told that they were of a low order of organization—half-breeds, partly French, partly English; but in this respect I was misinformed: they are at least as intelligent and as capable of fulfilling the duties belonging to them as the average of their associates who are not Jumpers; some of them can read and write, and all whom I saw could converse in English with a reasonable degree of intelligence; possibly as much as we could expect of persons of their age and environment. But all of them, without exception, were of shrinking temperaments. In the chorea epidemics of the middle ages, or of the great religious revivals of this country, this class would be very likely to have been attacked.

Hereditary.—Before I visited Moosehead Lake, while I knew only those facts that were obtained at second or third hand, I felt quite sure that this disease would be likely to be a family inheritance. This deductive reasoning was confirmed by inductive observation. It is fully as hereditary as insanity, or epilepsy, or hay-fever, although it has no special relation to any of those forms of disease. In the family of one of those with whom I experimented there were five Jumpers, the father, two sons, and two grandchildren of the respective ages of four and seven years. In the family of another with whom I experimented there were four, all brothers. In the family of another of whom I obtained information, but did not study, there were three cases, an uncle, a mother, and a brother. In another family there were two boys, both Jumpers. Here, then, were fourteen cases in four families. By the study of these cases, it was possible to trace the malady back at least half a century.

Endemic and contagious.—Jumping seems to be endemic, confined mainly to the north woods of Maine and to those of French descent, and is psycho-contagious—that is, can be caught by personal contact, like chorea and hysteria.

Shortly after I began these researches, I found in a copy of the London "Medical Record" brief reference to precisely similar phenomena on the other side of the globe, among the Malays. The notice was very brief, indeed, but it was sufficient to show that there was no difference in the phenomena as exhibited in these different races. I have been told that in northern Michigan these Jumpers are to be found, but have obtained no evidence on that point that is entirely satisfactory. It would not be improbable that this assertion should be proved to be true, since the class among whom Jumpers are found is somewhat migratory, although not so much so as the English and Americans.

Origin and Philosophy of the Disease.—Jumping is probably an evolution of tickling. Some, if not all, of the Jumpers, are ticklish—exceedingly so—and are easily irritated by touching them in sensitive parts of the body. It would appear that in the evenings, in the woods, after the day's toil, in lieu of most other sources of amusement, the lumbermen have teased each other, by tickling, and playing, and startling timid ones, until there has developed this jumping, which, by mental contagion, and by practice, and by inheritance, has ripened into the full stage of the malady as it appears at the present hour. This theory is in harmony with the general facts of physiology, and explains, better than any suggestion that has occurred to me, the history of what would otherwise appear to be without explanation, and almost outside of science. In a certain sense, we are all Jumpers; under sudden excitement, as of a blow, or a violent, unexpected sound, any person, even not very nervous, may jump and cry, somewhat as these Jumpers do, though not with all the manifestations of the Jumpers. Hysterical women, jumping and shrieking on slight excitement, we have all seen.

Everything about this subject is incredible. I do not expect that my readers will believe all, if they believe any, of what is here reported; rather they will find it easier to believe that I have been deceived; that the six sources of error that are involved in all experiments with human beings were not fully eliminated; that the Jumpers, in short, experimented with me, and not I with the Jumpers; and that, through all of this half century, the guides and physicians, the proprietors of hotels, and their neighbors, and relatives, and friends, have been the victims of intentional or unintentional fraud. But to my own mind the most incredible fact of all is, not the existence of the phenomena, but that the phenomena have not been sooner observed by science, and that they have so long escaped the notice even of scientific men who live near or in those regions, and who frequently visit them.

Two of the best known citizens of Greenville—a town at the foot of Moosehead Lake—who have lived there very many years, if not all their lives, who have had these Jumpers in their employ, denied or doubted the existence of any of these phenomena, declaring that these so-called Jumpers were merely drunk or playing. My guide in the woods of northern New Hampshire, who had spent his whole life in those wilds, who was old enough to be a great-grandfather, denied, without reservation, the whole claim; but, after investigating the subject with me, was compelled to admit its genuineness. One of my fishing companions in the woods, a clear-brained and vigorous man of business, and a man of the world, who for seventeen years had passed his summers in these regions, knew nothing of the subject until this season when I called his attention to it. All around these districts there are physicians, not in them but near them—for in the summer season the Jumpers scatter, to a certain degree, over the farms in the vicinity—and every year physicians and men of science, experts in various realms, visit for recreation the districts where these Jumpers most abound; but if they see them they do not notice them, or if they notice them they do not understand them, or if they understand them they say nothing about them, and do not attempt to bring, or at least do not succeed in bringing, the phenomena into science.

  1. Read before the American Neurological Association, June, 1880.
  2. The six sources of error in experimenting with living human beings are—1. Unconscious deception on the part of the subject experimented on; 2. Intentional deception on the part of the subject experimented on 3. Intentional collusion of other parties; 4. Unintentional collusion of other parties; 5. Chances and coincidences; 6. Phenomena of the involuntary life. In experimenting with the Jumpers the nature of the phenomena made it easy to eliminate the main element of error, intentional deception on the part of the subject—since, unless the subject is deceived or at least surprised, the phenomena do not appear.
  3. So called because they rolled over and over on the floor while under religious excitement.
  4. In my work on "Trance" these phenomena are described in more detail than is here possible.