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Our Rich History: The Earth’s not flat, it’s . . . hollow? The other John Cleves Symmes

by Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

Part 64 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

“I declare the earth is hollow, habitable within and constituted of a number of concentric spheres.” Those were the words of John Cleves Symmes, Jr. — not the founder of the Miami Purchase and original owner of the land on which Cincinnati was founded — but his namesake nephew, John Cleves Symmes Jr.

John Cleves Symmes, Jr., by noted naturalist and artist John James Audubon, 1820. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

In the early 1800s, little was known about the North and South Poles or the earth’s core. But this namesake of a more famous uncle had passionate and “scientific” notions to explain all of this.

John Cleves Symmes Jr. was born on November 5, 1779 or 1780 (records are not clear), in Sussex County, New Jersey. He was the son of Timothy Symmes, John Cleves Symmes’ brother. He was named after Timothy’s Revolutionary War hero brother. The “Junior” was simply attached by the nephew to differentiate himself from his famous uncle

“Junior” would not just get his name from his famous uncle, he would also get help in obtaining a commission as Ensign in the United States Army in 1802. A captain during the War of 1812, Symmes Jr. saw action at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and the Siege of Fort Erie. He left the army soon after the close of the war. After an unsuccessful stint as an Indian trader in St. Louis, he brought his family to Newport, Kentucky as early as 1810, possibly before.

Death notices of John Cleves Symmes, Jr. appeared in newspapers throughout the United States, including this one in the Boston Commercial Gazette of June 15, 1829, p. 1.

While living in Newport, Symmes would expand and publish his now famous yet debunked theory. While not a trained scientist, Symmes was educated and very curious. As a child, he was always reading. Despite his lack of scientific training, he would put forth the premise, as Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley had done before him, that the earth was actually a hollow shell. He claimed that the outer shell, on which we live, was only about 800 miles or so thick.

His theory also stated that there were large openings at both the North and South Pole, which served as entrances to the four inner layers of the earth. His description of these openings seems akin to walking into the hole of a doughnut. The weather was believed to be temperate and suitable for vegetative, animal, and human habitation.

Symmes was adamant about this theory. He had 500 copies of a pamphlet explaining his theory sent to politicians, scientists and other learned individuals in America and Europe. He evidently attached proof of his sanity to those pamphlets. Symmes then went on a public speaking tour to promote his hollow earth theory.

Through his connections and efforts, Symmes’ theory attracted attention, even gaining support for an expedition to the North Pole to find the entrance into the inner layers. For instance, the Cincinnati Theater held a fundraiser for such an expedition in 1824. His theory, despite its critics, gained some traction in the United States. His most impressive follower was John Quincy Adams. Unfortunately, as Symmes was rising in public thought, his health was failing. He died on May 28, 1829. By that time, he had moved his family to Hamilton, Ohio and was buried there. In 1873, his son Americus received permission to erect a monument at his father’s grave. It still stands today. The monument is topped by a sculpted earth, with the center hollowed out.

While the hollow earth theory and John Cleves Symmes Jr. seemed to be largely forgotten today, his work did have some lasting impact. For instance, his calls for an expedition to the North Pole came to fruition when the United States sponsored one in 1838.

Perhaps one of the reasons why John Cleves Symmes, Jr. settled in Newport, Kentucky, rather than in neighboring Cincinnati, Ohio, was that he was a slave owner—as this runaway slave ad from Cincinnati’s Liberty Hall of March 14, 1810, p. 2, attests.
Photo_04: John Cleves Symmes lectured throughout the United States. This notice from the Cincinnati Daily Gazette of Wednesday, October 2, 1822 announced one of his lectures later that afternoon. Cost of admission was 25 cents.

Ironically, Symmes may have inadvertently given rise to the genre of science fiction. In 1820, an anonymous author, now thought to be Nathaniel Ames, published Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery.
This fanciful novel chronicled a fictional expedition to the center of the earth where the characters discovered long-extinct mammoths and a humanoid race of people who were driven underground. Later, Jules Verne would capitalize on this theme for his 1864 novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The Verne novel would be resurrected in a 1959 movie of the same name, and in a 2008 remake starring Josh Hutcherson, a Northern Kentucky native. Even children of the 1970s enjoyed the theory with Saturday morning’s Land of the Lost. These science fiction spinoffs may not have been how Symmes wanted to be remembered, but nevertheless, he made his mark in the history of pop culture.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU and the author of many books and articles.

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