Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Hollow Earth Craze

The Hollow Earth Craze and the Search for the Mole People

By C. A. Asbrey

John Cleves Symmes Jr
The 19th century was a time marked by many strange fads and crazes, enabled by the newly emerging world of media, and by the increased speed of travel allowing ideas, movements, and groups, to propagate their ideas across the country like never before. One such man was a former American army officer, called John Cleves Symmes Jr. He was not actually the son  of the famous Revolutionary War hero. He had been named for his uncle, but added the 'junior' himself, claiming it helped to differentiate him from his relative, despite that being being extremely unlikely given that his uncle had been born in 1742, and was thirty eight years older. Symmes tried to become a trader, after leaving military service, but failed. He then moved on to promoting a personal obsession; The Hollow Earth Theory. 
On April 10th, 1818, Symmes issued a proclamation in a document he called Circular No.1 in which he declared, "I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick 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 Jr., Symmes' Circular No. 1 

Symmes sent this document to "each notable foreign government, reigning prince, legislature, city, college, and philosophical societies, throughout the union, and to individual members of our National Legislature, as far as the five hundred copies would go." Symmes' son Americus wrote of the reaction to Circular No. 1 in 1878, "[i]ts reception by the public can easily be imagined; it was overwhelmed with ridicule as the production of a distempered imagination, or the result of partial insanity. It was for many years a fruitful source of jest with the newspapers.

This did not deter Symmes. He mounted a campaign of circulars, newspaper letters, and lectures aimed at defending and promoting his hypothesis of a Hollow Earth—and to build support for a polar expedition to vindicate his theory. And it found traction in the most unusual, and powerful quarters.

The theory was originally more complex, consisting of a set of five concentric spheres nestled inside one another like Russian dolls, accessed by the poles.  His contention was that the centrifugal force of the earth's rotation would flatten the poles, and lead to a vast opening to the earth's core. The inner worlds were supposed to rotate at different rates and on different axis, and be lighted by the sunlight reflected by through next sphere down from the earth's fiery core. The instability of the magnetic north in the arctic was posited as evidence of an opening between our outer sphere, and the next layer down. By the time he embarked on his tour of the east coast, the theory had evolved to just one hollow sphere, possibly due to many ideas being publicly debunked. 

The idea was far from novel. It had first been proposed by Britain's second Astronomer Royal, the English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and physicist, Edmund Halley, in the 18th century. Some say that Symmes learned of the theory from the puritan preacher, Cotton Mather's book, The Christian Philosopher, A Popular Survey of Science as Natural Theology. Symmes also exchanged a series of letters and accusations and counter-claims with Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, who had published a similar theory in 1824. Nevertheless, it was Symmes who is most associated with the theory as he courted the most publicity, and had the idea entertained in the highest circles. 

John Quincy Adams
Symmes embarked on the lecture circuit, pleading for funding to an expedition to the poles to find the subterranean entrance to the underworld. He believed the underworld to be populated with 'mole people', and he saw a lucrative future in establishing trade with them. The lecture tour was accompanied by visual aids, not the least of which was a wooden globe with the polar sections removed to reveal the inner spheres. This model is now in the collection of Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. He was not a good speaker, with a flat, thin and nasal voice, but his ideas soon caught on in some quarters, while being soundly ridiculed in others. It is fair to remember that so much of the world was still unexplored at this time, and that science was largely unknown outside of a select few. Many people were illiterate, and those who weren't were often only educated to the very basic level required of whatever role a person's birthright had mapped out for them. Even very famous and rich men often had what we would consider to be an inadequate education today, concentrating on history and ancient languages, more than the new discoveries and sciences.

John Quincy Adams was a devotee of Symmes' theory, even campaigning on promises to fund an expedition during his election campaign. After Adams' election the proposal was voted upon by the US House of Representatives, and was defeated 56 to 46, meaning that roughly 44% of congressmen were willing to spend taxpayers' money searching for mole people.

The idea didn't die at that stage though, with Adams vowing to bring it back by asking congress to reconsider. It took until 1828, and the election of Andrew Jackson, to finally kill the idea forever. Jackson was totally convinced of the futility of the expedition, not because of the science, but because he believed the world was flat.



A wobble on the mattress jolted Sewell out of the arms of his dream-woman. He grunted and shifted under the covers, moving onto his other side. He suddenly felt a dead weight on top of him, an immobilizing, ponderous pressure which left him paralyzed and unable to move. Sewell gasped, sucking in a breath of a sweet, sickly miasma which filled his lungs as he took short pants of fear. His eyelids opened snapped open as the horror of his immobility climbed. He was pinned beneath his bedclothes, unable to move a limb, except for the feet which flailed and floundered beneath the tangling sheets.

He tried to cry out but found his impotent screams lost in the fabric jamming his mouth. He lay, pinned to the bed, rigid and immobilized as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness and a figure loomed into view. Sewell’s heart stilled at the sight of a hideous crone looming over him, her wild white hair standing straight out from her head in a tangled mass in every direction. Her lips curled back in disdain around a mouth which appeared to be laughing, but not a sound was to be heard. The hag’s eyes were in shadow, lending her the appearance of a screaming skull floating above him. She sat on his chest, rendering him unable to scream, or even move as the smell filled his nostrils. It felt like powerful arms and legs kept him pinned down. What kind of nightmare was this?

The gorgon pressed close, so close he could feel the heat of her breath on his face. All he could do was blink and tremble, too stupefied to move. It seemed like the longest time before the blackness crept in, and his eyelids dropped closed once more. The nightmare didn’t leave, it took him; engulfing him entirely until he felt nothing.

Dawn crept in by inches, the dark transitioning from black to gray, until the low morning sunshine added a warming brightness to the scene. The shadows were as long as the sunbeams were cleansing, chasing down the retreating darkness to a mere frown until the morning smiled on another new day. The sun’s confidence grew, climbing higher in the sky, proud of the majestic light which gave life and succor to the whole planet—well, not all of it. Sewell Josephson never saw another day. That day saw him though, swinging gently by the creaking rope fixed to the newel post at the turn of the staircase on the top landing. The ligature bit into the neck below the engorged face from which a purple tongue protruded from his dead gaping mouth.

The only life in the house stared at the figure with unblinking black eyes and a twitching tail. The cat turned her head at the sound of a key in the back door. A human at last. Maybe the cook would know what do to?

        Kindle Link        Trade Paperback Link



  1. It's entertaining to believe Earth is hollow and filled with mole people or even that Earth is flat and, if a ship goes out too far it will drop off Earth into the vastness of space. Human beings love a good story.
    I wish you every success with "Innocent Minds", Christine. I am intrigued by the log line.
    All the best to you.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I thought something fun was needed in times like these.

  2. Although strange to us, it is these flights of imaginative theories that led to some interesting outcomes. People can believe anything if said with enough conviction, like the 'Rats' that ate the baby on Pikes Peak. I appreciated the history lesson, it was really fascinating. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. It's easy to forget that many of the things we think are nonsense now were once accepted due to a lack of scientific knowledge.