Sunday, May 1, 2011

Deathday: "Hollow Earth" Theorist John Cleves Symmes Jr. 1829

John Cleves Symmes, Jr. (1779 – May 1829) was an American army officer whose 1818 Hollow Earth theory, expounded on the lecture circuit, gained him considerable notoriety.


Symmes was born in New Jersey to Timothy Symmes. In some local dealings he used the name Junior to distinguish himself from his prominent uncle John Cleves Symmes. His cousin, Anna Harrison briefly served as First Lady of the United States. He died in May 1829 and is buried in Symmes Park at Hamilton, Ohio. His son, Americus Symmes, erected a Hollow Earth monument above his grave.

He joined the United States Army in 1802 and rose to the rank of Captain during the War of 1812. He was stationed along the Canadian frontier, at both Fort Niagara and Fort Erie.

His 1818 theory of a Hollow Earth, envisioning a shell about 1250 km (800 mi) thick, with openings at both poles about 2200 km (1400 mi) across with four inner shells also open at the poles, made his name famous/notorious.

Some have claimed he was the real author of: Symzonia; Voyage of Discovery, which was attributed to "Captain Adam Seaborn." A recent reprint gives him as the author. Other researchers argue against this idea. Some think it was written as a satire of Symmes ideas, and believe they identified the author as an early American writer named Nathaniel Ames who wrote other works, including one that might have served as the inspiration of Moby Dick. (see Lang, Hans-Joachim and Benjamin Lease. "The Authorship of Symzonia: The Case for Nathanial Ames" New England Quarterly, June 1975, pg 241-252.)

Symmes himself never wrote a book of his ideas, as he was too busy expounding them on the lecture circuit, but others did. His follower James McBride wrote Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres in 1826. Another follower, Jeremiah N. Reynolds apparently had an article that was published as a separate booklet in 1827: Remarks of Symmes' Theory Which Appeared in the American Quarterly Review. In 1868 a professor W.F. Lyons published The Hollow Globe which put forth a Symmes-like Hollow Earth theory, but did not mention Symmes. Symmes's son Americus then published The Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres to set the record straight.


Compare a fictional echo of Symmes in Ian Wedde's Symmes Hole (1987); and a focus on both Symmes and Reynolds in James Chapman's Our Plague: A Film From New York (1993).

Poe Note

Poe used elements of the hollow earth theory in the ending to his only novel:

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) is the only complete novel written by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The work relates the tale of the young Arthur Gordon Pym, who stows away aboard a whaling ship called the Grampus. Various adventures and misadventures befall Pym, including shipwreck, mutiny, and cannibalism, before he is saved by the crew of the Jane Guy. Aboard this vessel, Pym and a sailor named Dirk Peters continue their adventures further south. Docking on land, they encounter hostile black-skinned natives before escaping back to the ocean. The novel ends abruptly as Pym and Peters continue towards the South Pole.

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