J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 19, 2019

“I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within”

This episode of the Timesuck podcast, this History Daily article, this Cracked article, this 13th Floor article, and this History Extra roundup of Presidential trivia all tell the same story.

That story says President John Quincy Adams was convinced by a man named John Cleves Symmes, Jr., that Earth is hollow, that one can go inside the planet through holes at the poles, and that people are living inside. Allegedly Adams was so taken with this idea that he championed a federal expedition to Antarctica to explore the inner Earth, only to be stymied by losing the election of 1828.

All these web resources also use the term “mole people” for the inhabitants of the hollow Earth, sometimes in quotation marks, even though that phrase isn’t documented before the end of the nineteenth century.

And none points to sources that link President Adams’s statements or actions to Symmes’s vision of a hollow, populated Earth.

You can see where this is going. I’m here to tell you this story is false. Yes, I’m not much fun—but neither, most of the time, was John Quincy Adams.

So far the best online treatment of this story that I’ve found is this Reddit posting by smileyman. So my challenge is to add something interesting to what that says.

First of all, John Cleves Symmes, Jr. (1780-1829, shown above), really did believe in a populated hollow Earth. He was born in New Jersey, named after an uncle who commanded a New Jersey militia regiment in the Revolution and represented the state in the Continental Congress during its low point of the mid-1780s. The elder Symmes was also an early American settler of the Ohio Territory.

The younger Symmes joined the U.S. Army in 1802 and continued to serve through the War of 1812. He then moved to St. Louis as a trader. That business failed in the 1819 Panic, but by then Symmes had a bright new idea to take up his time. In April 1818 he published a circular letter that said:
St. Louis, Missouri Territory, North America,
April 10, A. D. 1818.

To all the World:
I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen 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.

Jno. Cleves Symmes,
Of Ohio, late Captain of Infantry.

N. B. I have ready for the press a treatise on the principles of matter, wherein I show proofs of the above positions, account for various phenomena, and disclose Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin’s “Golden Secret [of wind patterns].” . . .

I ask one hundred, brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in the fall season, with reindeer and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find a warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.
Symmes doesn’t seem to have come to the theory through actual evidence about Earth. He denied having read any previous theories along the same lines. (Edmund Halley had proposed one such theory to the Royal Society, and the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather later mentioned it in passing.) He said instead that he was inspired by seeing the rings of Saturn, though I’m not sure how exactly those were supposed to prove a hollow planet. But Symmes had his idea and insisted it was correct.

Remarkably, the circular letter didn’t attract the hundred companions that Symmes asked for. In 1820 he launched a speaking tour to spread his idea and drum up support. Two years later, Symmes petitioned the U.S. Congress to fund his expedition, but it declined to take up the proposal. The same thing happened the following year. Then the Ohio legislature turned down the opportunity in 1824.

Meanwhile, John Quincy Adams was serving James Monroe as Secretary of State.

TOMORROW: A proposal to the President.

(My thanks to Stephanie McKellop for alerting me to the story of Adams and the “mole people.”)

1 comment:

Mike said...

I suppose the flat-earthers weren't too eager to sign on to that expedition.