Podcast 214 – The Leaping Lumberjacks of Central Maine

In 1880, Dr. George Miller Beard studied a small group of French Canadian loggers in central Maine, who would leap uncontrollably when startled, and do whatever they were told.


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In Episode 214, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the woods around Moosehead Lake in central Maine searching for some leaping French-Canadian loggers who became the subject of teasing and a neurological study back in 1880. When startled, these loggers would jump up and down uncontrollably and do whatever anyone tells them to do. Was this affliction the result of inbreeding? Boredom? Or something else?

Read the episode transcript.

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CREDITS:
Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

[WALKING THROUGH WOODS]

RAY: Jeff! Jeff! Where are you?

RAY: JEEEEEFFFFF!

JEFF: Boo!

RAY: Dude! Don’t scare me like that! It’s freaky enough being out here in the woods of central Maine.

JEFF: I know… I’m sorry, Ray. I wandered off to get a look at Moosehead Lake, and when I saw you looking for me I couldn’t help but try and give you a scare.

RAY: Well knock it off.

JEFF: Don’t worry about it. You seem okay now… you don’t have… the sickness.

RAY: What sickness?

JEFF: A strange affliction that’s affected some French-Canadian loggers in these parts, causing them to jump uncontrollably and do anything they’re told when they’re in this agitated state. We’re at Moosehead Lake searching for the Leaping French Lumberjacks of Central Maine.

[INTRO]

JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger

RAY: That’s very French-Canadian of you to pronounce your name that way, Jeff.

JEFF: And welcome to Episode 214 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about 15 minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.

RAY: Then I guess I’m Ray Auger thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers who love strange tales of history and lore. Did you know so many of our story leads come from you? Just like this one did. Thanks to Raylene Ball for sending us the news article that tipped us off.

JEFF: Before we jump in to this odd tale, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor Nuwati Herbals.

RAY: It’s officially fall, Jeff.

JEFF: It is!

RAY: The nights are getting colder, the apples on the tree are getting crisp and sweet, we’ve got those great autumn campfires coming up, and I can’t think of anything that would go with those sights and sounds better than some chocolate chai tea from Nuwati Herbals.

JEFF: That sounds delicious. Or maybe even some hot honey and spice flavored tea from Nuwati Herbals.

RAY: You can’t go wrong either way. Plus, with the colder weather comes cold and flu season.

JEFF: Right. And this is during a time when every sneeze and cough is suspect.

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RAY: Okay, Jeff, so we’re looking for some leaping French-Canadian lumberjacks?

JEFF: We are. This is the weirdest human behavior story we’ve ever chased, and maybe the weirdest human behavior story I’ve ever heard of. Had it not been studied by a leading neurologist of the time, I would dismiss it as completely made up, but the disorder got a name and some wild theories as to the cause. So let’s head back to 1880 and hope we don’t catch this unusual affliction.

[TRANSITION]

[CHOPPING / FALLING TREES]

RAY: It’s September of 1880, and we’re exploring a logging camp by Moosehead Lake in central Maine. This is a time of timber! Maine is the lumber capital of the world right now.

[TREE FALLING]

JEFF: From camps like this one near Moosehead Lake, the fallen trees make their way to Bangor and other Maine towns where they’re either processed into lumber, or sold whole for processing somewhere else. America is building fast. The country needs wood.

RAY: The demand is huge, and that means lumberjacks are needed to come to the region and drop the trees. The job qualifications aren’t that high. You need to be able to swing an axe, and keep up with the others.

JEFF: Seasoned loggers can tell right away if a new greenhorn is going to make it or not. There’s a look about them, you know?

RAY: Sure. It doesn’t take more than a few hours of this kind of work for others to see if you’re cut out for the job.

JEFF: Some guys quit on their first day, others settle in and are productive. But either way, turnover is high. Some loggers get hurt and need to be replaced, others save enough money for whatever it is they plan to buy and move on, and some have enough of the conditions and seek their fortunes someplace else. There’s an old joke that goes around these camps that there’s always three shifts. Those working, those quitting, and those coming to take the open jobs.

RAY: One day, a group of French Canadians come down from the north looking for work. The boss doesn’t ask too many questions. They seem able-bodied enough. One of the men explains he can cook, which is always needed in remote areas like this. So they join the camp, and get to work.

[CHOPPING TREES]

JEFF: The new guys work hard enough, but there’s something odd about them. Something off.

RAY: The lumberjack veterans can’t help but pull some pranks on the greenhorns. Whether it’s telling them about the legend of old Razorshins, and how they need to leave out a jug of booze as an offering, or teasing them as part of a kind of initiation into the camp. Sometimes they can’t help themselves…. Hey, Jeff… look over there. It looks like one of the veterans is sneaking up on one of the new French Canadian loggers right now…

JEFF: Yeah, the French Canadian seems to be just staring blankly at the forest in front of him. He looks completely lost in thought. (WHISPERING) Let’s keep it down… Old Blue over there is tip-toeing up to him…

[SOFT WALK IN THE WOODS]
JEFF: (WHISPERING) He’s getting close…

LUMBERJACK: BOO! Razorshins is gonna getcha, FRENCHIE!

GREENHORN: Ahhhhhh!

JEFF: That guy looks like he almost jumped out of his skin! Ha! Hey…

RAY: Okay, that’s so weird! The Canadian greenhorn is still jumping.

GREENHORN: RAZORSHINS!

[JUMPING]

GREENHORN: RAZORSHINS!

[JUMPING]

GREENHORN: RAZORSHINS!

JEFF: He’s still jumping and screaming. What’s wrong with that guy?

RAY: The veteran who just spooked him is slowly backing away. No one in the camp knows what to make of this.

JEFF: Once everyone calms down, you can probably imagine what happens next.

RAY: Everyone in the camp has some sympathy that this guy is jumpy and his buddies may be too, so they leave them alone?

JEFF/RAY: (LAUGHING)

JEFF: Nope, the French Canadian greenhorns from this one region of Quebec, all have targets on their backs now. It turns out several of them are prone to jumping fits when they’re startled.

LUMBERJACK: BOO!

GREENHORN: AHHHHHH!

RAY: The veterans can’t get enough of messing with these guys. No one has ever seen anything like this. Sure, people jump when you startle them, but this goes on for a minute or two after.

JEFF: It’s unfortunate for these greenhorns that there’s not much entertainment out here in these logging camps. They just became the equivalent of a Broadway show. But things are about to get even worse for the French Canadians.

RAY: How could this get any worse for them?

JEFF: One of the veteran loggers discovers that these guys are highly suggestible when they’re in their jumping startled state.

RAY: I can see one of the French Canadian greenhorns is washing his face at the edge of the lake.

JEFF: Oh man… here comes another logger creeping up behind him.

LUMBERJACK: BOO! JUMP THE LAKE!

GREENHORN: AHHHHH

[SPLASHING]

RAY: The greenhorn just jumped in the lake! Just like that. And he’s still jumping in the water!

JEFF: This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen! Annnd I’m sure it’s obvious what happens next.

RAY: At this point? Yeah it is. Word spreads fast that once you startle the French Canadian greenhorns they’ll do anything you tell them to. Jump in the lake. Jump in a campfire. Pour out their drink. It doesn’t matter what you say, they do it without hesitation or question, all the while leaping up and down.

GREENHORN: AHHHHH

[JUMPING]

GREENHORN: AHHHHH

[JUMPING]

GREENHORN: AHHHHH

[JUMPING]

RAY: Word spreads, not just through the logging camp here by Moosehead Lake, but to other surrounding camps. The crazy thing is, other logging camps are experiencing the same thing with the French-Canadian greenhorns who come from this one region of Quebec. When other loggers pass through, the veterans of these camps make these greenhorns perform like show ponies.

JEFF: Word spreads to the towns and cities nearby, and pretty soon the story catches the attention of Dr. George Miller Beard.

RAY: Dr. Beard is a neurologist. He was born in Connecticut, educated in New York City, and now he’s on a train bound for the Moosehead Lake region of Maine.

[STEAM TRAIN]

RAY: He’s been fascinated with the startle reflex for years, so when he hears about how exaggerated the reflex is in the Leaping Frenchmen of Maine, he has to come investigate for himself.

JEFF: When Dr. Beard arrives at the logging camp near Moosehead Lake, he observes it’s more than just jumping and doing what one is told to do. Dr. Beard writes.

DR BEARD: When told to strike, he strikes, when told to throw it, he throws it, whatever he has in his hands.

JEFF: Dr. Beard has never seen anything like this! He’s observing. He’s taking notes. He’s asking himself: Why this one group of French Canadians? He observes, it’s not just when they’re scared or startled. These leaping loggers can also be tickled into this strange hysteria. And once they’re in that state, they don’t just jump around. They make sounds. Dr. Beard explains.

DR BEARD: He repeated or echoed the sound of the word as it came to him, in a quick sharp voice, at the same time he jumped, or struck, or threw, or raised his shoulders, or made some other violent muscular motion. They could not help repeating the word or sound that came from the person that ordered them.

RAY: Dr. Beard is taking copious notes. He’s conducting interviews. He making more observations. And the loggers are all too happy to oblige the good doctor and show off all of the various tricks these men can do. Oh man… here comes a logging camp favorite right now.

JEFF: Okay, I can see a group of loggers are all sitting on a fallen tree taking a break. There’s eight, nine… ten of them. I know three of those men are French Canadians with the strange affliction.

RAY: Oh boy…. I can see one of the veteran loggers sneaking up behind them.

LUMBERJACK: PUNCH THE GUY NEXT TO YOU!

LUMBERJACKS: Ow! Ouch! Quit it!

RAY: And just like that three of leaping loggers are hitting the men next to them uncontrollably.

DR BEARD: The individuals were not able to prevent themselves from starting, striking, dropping, jumping, and repeating words or sounds once another person startled them with sudden exclamations or commands. Some, when addressed quickly in a language foreign to them, would echo the phrase, even to the point of quoting from the Odyssey or Iliad.

JEFF: Dr. Beard publishes his findings, and the taunting and teasing continues in the logging camps where these particular French Canadians were working.

RAY: There are many theories that circulate as to what the cause of this affliction could be. Some suggested that the community in Quebec that these leaping loggers came from was so small that many intermarried. So basically this could be the result of inbreeding.

JEFF: Others claim that this whole thing was just an act brought on by extreme boredom in the woods. And they pulled one over on Dr. Beard.

RAY: Still, Dr. Beard’s research starts to make its way around the world where other researcher go searching for their own local examples of Jumping Frenchman Syndrome. Apparently there are some close examples of similar afflictions in Malaysia, Japan, and even Russia.

JEFF: Dr. Beard’s work eventually catches the attention of a French neurologist who studies involuntary neurological issues with people. This French neurologist believes maybe this Leaping Logger syndrome is simply a tic that’s part of a broader issue. The name of this French neurologist is Georges Gilles de la Tourette… the man who of course named Tourette Syndrome. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: Of course! But I’ve never heard of someone with an affliction like the Leaping French Loggers of Central Maine. Tourette Syndrome is defined by multiple motor tics accompanied by some kind of vocal tic. We don’t hear stories about people with Tourette Syndrome doing anything they’re told to do when startled.

JEFF: We should also point out that Tourette Syndrome affects about 1% of school-aged children. It’s not as rare as was once suspected, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And I agree, whatever was happening with the Leaping French Loggers sounds different to me. Still, this medical curiosity made its way through the journals and newspapers of the time.

RAY: The other thing that strikes me is that this has to be the fourth or fifth Maine logging camp legend we’ve covered.

JEFF: We do seem to keep coming back to these camps, don’t we?

RAY: There’s Razor Shins, which got a brief mention in this week’s story. We covered that one back in episode 50. Then there’s some of the monsters, like the Agropelter, the Billdad, and the Tote Road Shagamaw. All tales told around the logging camp fire.

JEFF: When you combine a remote location, like the forests of central Maine, with some bored people who are each fighting to hold on to their health and sanity, there’s no doubt strange things are going to happen.

[OUTTRO]

RAY: And speaking of strange people who we’re proud to call family, we’d like to thank our Patreon patrons for all of their support. These folks kick in just $3 bucks per month and for that they get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.

JEFF: I’m also thrilled to announce that the 2022 Haunted New England wall calendar featuring stories by yours truly, and the eerie photography of Frank Grace, is on sale now! These are limited edition and sell out every year. If you want yours, just head to our Web site and click on the calendar to place your order online.

RAY: If you enjoy our podcast each week, there’s a good chance your friends will to. Please post your favorite episode to your social media. Or tell a friend or two about us in person. And you should join our super secret New England Legends Facebook group! There are thousands of us in there right now sharing strange tales.

JEFF: We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talent this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.

RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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