Hollow Earth Theory: John Cleves Symmes, Jr.
We’ve all heard of “Flat Earth Theory.” But in the early 1800s, a man named John Cleves Symmes, Jr. spread his ideas far and wide, to anyone that would listen: That the Earth was hollow inside and habitable within. Did this theory actually get the support of U.S. President John Quincy Adams? In this episode, we’ll find out and then we’ll chat with podcast regular, mindreader Eric Dittelman!
If you visit Hamilton, Ohio – just north of Cincinnati, there’s a city park with a strange feature. In the center of the park, a small fenced off area contains an obelisk grave marker for John Cleves Symmes, Jr. On top of the obelisk is a sphere with a hole going through the center. It was a final gesture of recognition to a theory he spent his life promoting.
The grave used to be surrounded by all the graves of Hamilton residents. The city park was once a cemetery. But when the graves were moved in 1848 to make room for a park, Symmes grave stayed behind as the only reminder of the cemetery. After all – he had owned the land. And the sphere on top of the monument was put there by his son. It represents the Earth with a big hole going through it – a simplified representation of what he believed. Which was super weird.
I’ll describe to you his theory the way he described it to the nation in June of 1818 when he placed the same announcement in dozens of newspapers around the country. It says, quote,
“To All the World!
I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking. John Cleves Symmes, of Ohio, Late Captain of Infantry N.B. (which means Nota Bene – it’s like P.S.) I have ready for the press a treatise on the principles of matter, wherein I show proof of the above positions, account for various phenomena, and dispose Doctor Darwin’s golden secret.”
He goes on to ask for one hundred brave companions and says they’ll start in Siberia in the fall on their expedition and expect to find vegetables, animals and possibly men living inside the hole that they discover on top of the earth.
But I was really curious about this “Doctor Darwin’s Golden Secret” he mentions. In 1818, Charles Darwin was nine years old. So what was he talking about? Apparently, this is a reference to Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who was a famed botanist and philosopher. In one of Erasmus’s poems, he claims that there is an undiscovered secret that causes the directions of the winds to change. So when Symmes claims to dispose Doctor Darwin’s golden secret, he is saying that discovering the whole in the top and bottom of the Earth may explain why the winds change.
So who was John Cleves Symmes? He was born in 1780 and his uncle was a more well-known man with the same name – he was named after his famous uncle John Cleves Symmes who was a famous pioneer and father in law to President William Henry Harrison. So you’ll often see the Symmes we’re talking about with “Junior” after his name, or his military rank so people wouldn’t confuse him. He was a Captain in the 1st Infantry Regiment and was in the service during the war of 1812 where he was involved in the Siege of Fort Erie and the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. After the Army, he became a merchant in Saint Louis trading with Native Americans there and then moved to Newport, KY which is just across the river from downtown Cincinnati. This was around the time he decided to dedicate the entire rest of his life to promoting this Hollow Earth Theory.
The circular that he placed in newspapers in 1818 – the one I just read to you, explains what he believed. That the earth is made up of concentric hollow spheres which a hole at the top and bottom – and that the inside of the earth is habitable. And he didn’t make it up. This was an idea that had existed for at least 150 years – going back to the late 17th century.
An English Astronomer Edmond Halley had written in 1692 that the earth’s outer shell was 500 miles thick and inside that, there was another sphere that turned on it’s own magnetic poles separate from the outer sphere, and inside that another shell, and so on. Apparently this was his way to explain why he would sometimes get strange magnetic compass readings. He also came up with this idea that the inside was habitable and that when we see Aurora borealis, the northern lights, that’s caused by escaping gas from inside the hollow earth.
John Cleves Symmes also had read Cotton Mather’s book, “The Christian Philosopher,” which argued that God wouldn’t have wanted the Earth to have any wasted space, so an inhabitable hollow earth made sense.
John Cleves Symmes wasn’t a trained scientist. He just loved to read and was fascinated with this theory. So much so, that – in addition to placing his message in newspapers, he created 500 copies of a pamphlet that explained his theory. He sent it to politicians, scientists and anyone that would listen. Along with the pamphlet, he attached the results of a mental exam to prove that he wasn’t crazy.
One of the people who received the Symmes pamphlet was an American President who is rumored not only to have believed him, but was willing to support his expedition to the top of the world.
There’s this awesome headline that I’ve seen several places around the Internet. It goes like this. “President John Quincy Adams Approved a Mission to Earth’s Interior to Meet the Mole People That Live Within.”
Here’s what we know: President Adams was a strong supporter of exploration. He loved science and scientific discoveries. Adams was up for reelection soon and needed the country to know that he was in favor of exploration and decisiveness. That had been one of the criticisms of his opponent, Andrew Jackson, who people saw as bold and decisive. And one of Symmes students and proteges, Jeremiah Reynolds, DID get approval by President Adams to lead an exploration. Reynolds was a newspaper editor who was so enamored by the hollow earth theory that he quit his job and began following Symmes around to his speeches throughout the country. President Adams knew that Reynolds was a follower of Symmes and knew what Symmes believed.
But this is where most of this theory falls apart. There isn’t any proof that John Quincy Adams believed in hollow earth or mole people living inside. According to Howard Dorre at Plodding through the Presidents, the reason people think that is because Adams said that Symmes theory was “visionary.” Well the way people used the word “visionary” back then was different than they do now. They would have used that word to mean having a fanatical or even disturbed imagination. And in fact, Adams didn’t support this expedition until AFTER Reynolds had disavowed and abandoned the Hollow Earth Theoryin favor of a more scientifically grounded polar expedition.
But Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams and the expedition never happened, so none of that matters anyway. But if you want to hear more about this particular little story, go listen to Episode 5 of the Plodding through the Presidents podcast: John Quincy Adams versus the Internet.
Toward the end of the Adams Presidency, Symmes theories were rising in popularity, but the man himself was getting old and falling ill. This is why it would be up to one of his disciples, Reynolds, to carry on with plans for a polar expedition.
When John Cleves Symmes died in May of 1829, his theories would never gain more popularity than when he was alive. His son Americus, along with some of his Arden followers, tried hard to continue his message, but without scientific proof, there was no widespread support. An expedition to the North Pole wouldn’t even be completed until the early 1900s.
Despite his failure at convincing the world of his theories, there are a few lasting legacies from Symmes. Some credit his hollow earth theory with giving a rise to the subterranean genre of Science Fiction genre. Jules Verne’s popular 1864 book “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was a huge hit and a springboard for science fiction, but 40 years prior, Nathaniel Ames anonymously published a similar themed book called “Voyage of Discovery” where characters traveled into the center of a hollow earth to discover animals and subterranean people.
Another lasting legacy is his very strange grave marker sitting inside Symmes Park and playground in Hamilton, OH. You can still see it to this day. And on the North side of the marker are the following words, immortalizing his effort to contribute to science: “Captain John Cleves Symmes was a philosopher and originator of “Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres and Polar Voids. He contended that the earth is hollow and habitable within.”
Now if this story occurred in 2022, you’d be hearing John Cleves Symmes being treated as a credible scientist on Joe Rogan. But since it happened in the 19th century, this theory has been left exactly where it belongs. In the trash heap of junk science.
Sources for this episode: