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For John Cleves Symmes Jr., the modest proposal he made repeatedly to Congress (and backed by then-President John Quincy Adams) offered nothing less than the beginning of the greatest voyage of discovery ever undertaken. Unfortunately, his critics were not so easily swayed.
Symmes, a former army officer who had served with distinction during the War of 1812, might have been quietly forgotten were it not for a radical theory he proposed in 1818. In a pamplet addressed to various institutes of higher education, Symmes wrote that:I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a numberof 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.—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 Doctor Darwin's Golden Secret. My terms, are the patronage of this and the new worlds.I dedicate to my Wife and her ten Children. I select Doctor S.L. Mitchill,Sir H. Davy and Baron Alex. de Humboldt as my protectors. I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, 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 north-wardo f latitude 62; we will return in the succeeding spring.
How he came by this startling insight into the nature of the world isn't clear. Still, he would spend the rest of his life trying to prove it despite the objections of the more rational geologists of his time. Distributing 500 copies of his pamphlet to assorted philosophical societies, colleges, domestic and foreign politicians, and reputable scientists, Symmes rather thoughtfully included a certificate attesting to his sanity with each pamplet. Unfortunately, his son would later report that the pamphlet was "overwhelmed with ridicule as the product of a distempered imagination."
Despite the skepticism, Symmes's theory was considered newsworthy enough for his story to be carried by newspapers and magazines across the country. One magazine hired the great artist, John James Audubon, to make a sketch of Symmes in 1820 for one of their issues. The publicity helped launch Symmes' career as a lecturer as he travelled from city to city giving public lectures on his theory. While Symmes never wrote any more books, he managed to win over enough followers to carry on his public battle for recognition.
One of these followers, James McBride, was a prominent pioneer statesman and the first mayor of Hamilton, Ohio. A trained archaeologist, McBride was a respected researcher who conducted archaeological digs along the Mississippi valley. His willingness to risk his reputation by becoming one of Symmes' disciples may have helped win over many of the truly skeptical as did McBride's book which he published in 1826. The book, Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable, and Widely Open About The Poles is available online.
Along with a clear description of Symmes' theory and the evidence for it, McBride also describes the necessary preparations for a polar expedition to discover the inner world. Though the early 19th century had already seen several expeditions to the Arctic, an overland expedition to the North or South Pole was still wildly ambitious. In the book, McBride laid out several possible routes including taking a sea route across east of Spitzbergen to reach a point where the overland journey could begin. In discussing the actual expense of the expedition, James McBride argued that it could be done relatively cheaply given what could be learned from discovering the inner world. He estimated the cost at one to two hundred thousand dollars though he suggested that the costs could be reduced by using a whaling ship that could defray the expenses involved. In the final part of the book, McBride provided Symmes' biography and a description of their early attempts at getting the United States government to fund the proposed expedition.
As for who would lead such an expedition, there was only one obvious candidate. Jeremiah N. Reynolds, was already a well-known newspaper editor, lecturer, author and explorer who already had a larger than life reputation. Personally petitioning Congress and members of then-President John Quincy Adams's cabinet, Reynolds was able to win over many of the skeptics. Having been convinced the Symmes' theory was correct, Reynolds had joined him on the lecture circuit to promote the proposed expedition to the South Pole and find the entrance to the inner world. John Quincy Adams was personally fascinated with the idea and lent his own support to funding the expedition.
Fortunately or unfortunately, President Adams left office in 1829 and his successor, Andrew Jackson, cancelled the expedition. A disgruntled Adams suggested that this was due to Jackson believing that the Earth was still flat though, more likely, he simply shared the prevailing view that Symmes was a crackpot. Since John Cleveland Symmes Jr. died that same year, it was up to Jeremiah Reynolds to continue lecturing and raising funds for the expedition from private sources.
Assisted by former members of President Adams' cabinet and a wealthy patron named Watson who joined the expedition, Reynolds was able to charter a ship, the "Annawan" which was provisioned for a year-long expedition to the South Pole. It was an ambitious plan considering the dangers of sailing into Antarctic waters but Reynolds and his crew actually managed to land a longboat on the Antarctic continent itself. In fact, they were likely the first ship to discover that Antarctica actually was a continent. Since there was no possibility of reaching the South Pole except by an overland expedition, they decided to return home with the hope of trying again later. Unfortunately for Reynolds and Watson, this particular plan was scuttled when the crew stranded them in Valparaiso, Chile and mutinied to become pirates.
While Reynolds eventually made it home (with no mention in the records of what happened to Watson), he never came close to realizing his dream of exploring Antarctica again, let alone discovering Symmes's inner world. By the time Reynolds died in 1858, Cleves' theory had few real supporters. Certainly no one willing to finance an expedition to the North or South pole anyway. When the exploration of the North and South Poles began in earnest by the dawn of the 20th century, no sign of any entry point into the inner world was ever found (not that anyone seriously expected to find one by that point). Although the idea of a hollow earth has not been completely abandoned, none of the more recent supporters have ever had the kind of popular support that Symmes did.
Aside from various science fiction stories set inside a hollow earth (most notably Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar novels), John Cleaves Symmes Jr. and his theory of a hollow earth has been largely forgotten today. Except perhaps as a strange example of the power of belief and how even the most bizarre ideas can attract a cult following.
If only for a little while.
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