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The Strange Tale of Symmes Hole and the Hollow Earth Theory

Updated on March 30, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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Captain John Symmes
Captain John Symmes | Source

In 1818, Captain John Cleves Symmes Jr., had a startling revelation about the geologic make-up of Earth. It’s not clear what inspired him or if he had any training in the field of science. What is certain is that the U.S. veteran from the War of 1812 managed to convince a young nation that the Earth was hollow and there was a way to reach its center.

The Hollow Earth Theory was nothing new in Symmes’ era; however, his belief in the existence of portals within the North and South Pole that connected the “outer” and “inner” world was.

And, despite any evidence that Symmes Hole existed at all, his “theory” would remain popular for nearly 100 years and make him a household name well after his death, sometimes for the best – and other times for the worst.

Hollow Globe
Hollow Globe | Source

A Hollow Earth

To understand Symmes Hole, one must take a look at the Hollow Earth Theory. The idea that another world existed had been around long before Captain Symmes toured the country to explain his concept.

Numerous ancient mythologies, including Greeks and Roman legends surmised that an inner world existed. In most cases, the inner world was Hell” or the Underworld in which the spirits of the dead congregated.

In Modern times, the scientific “theory” (and theory is being used loosely in terms), dates back to the late 17th century when British astronomer Edmund Halley proposed that Earth consisted of four concentric spheres (Carroll, 2012). Also, Halley believed that inner worlds were separated “luminous atmosphere” and each one contained life.

Halley, a dignified and respected astronomer of his time -- as well as the one who would later be known as the namesake for Halley’s Comet -- surmised that the evidence could be found in the “outer world’s” atmosphere. He speculated that the Aurora Borealis was caused by seeping gas escaping from these inner worlds.

In the 18th century, several researchers made similar claims of an inner world. According to writers L. Sprague DeCamp and Willie Ley, Swiss mathematician and physicist Leonard Euler proposed that an interior sun existed to warm the interior world (he believed in only one).

De Camp and Ley also claimed that physicist Sir John Leslie suggested that two suns existed within Earth’s center.

And finally, there was the account of Le Clerc Milfort. In 1781, Milfort, a French military officer who led the Creek Indians for the British during the Revolutionary War stated he was led to caverns near the Red River/Mississippi River junction by his forces. There, he was told that Creek ancestors emerged from these cave from an inner world.

Milfort’s claim was made during Symmes’ lifetime, and may have been the account that sparked his concept of a portal to inner world.

Captain Symmes and His Theory

Symmes was a career officer. Born in 1779 in New Jersey, he spent his early years growing up during Revolutionary War. His education was unremarkable; however, he had a sense of curiosity, which often led him to spending hours in the local library.

In 1802, he joined the United States Army and rose to the rank of captain during the War of 1812.

He was stationed near the Canadian border during the war. First, he was at Fort Niagara before its capture in 1813. He relocated to Fort Erie. The two forts marked the northernmost area – and the closest region to the North Pole -- Symmes had traveled in his lifetime.

After the war, Captain Symmes retired from active duty and tried his hand at an early form of defense contracting with his former employer. Somewhere during these years of transitions, he began to contemplate his take on the Hollow Earth Theory.

It was not clear when and where he came up with the concept. One can only speculate he came across Halley or Milfort’s work while spending his time in the library. What is certain is that by 1818, Symmes was ready to present his theory to the scientific community.

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Excerpt from Symmes' Writing

To all the World!

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

Of Ohio, Late Captain of Infantry.


“Circular Number 1”

On April 10, 1818, Symmes put forth his theory that the Earth’s poles contained the inner world’s entry in a paper described as a “brief tract in unadorned prose.” He made numerous copies of Circular Number 1 – enough to send to every college, municipal government, senator, and eminent scientists in the country and in Europe (Shilo, 2006).

The paper put forth the concept of Symmes Hole. Also, it called for explorations of the poles, and funding to find them.

The scientific and scholarly communities were not impressed. The French Academy of Science reportedly deemed his paper as unworthy for any consideration of publication. The London Morning Chronicle questioned Symmes’s sanity (Shilo, 2006). One American mathematician called it “a heap of learned rubbish.”

By all accounts, Circular Number 1 was an abysmal failure. But, that didn’t stop Symmes. He made the critical move to bring his theory to the masses by means of public speaking, which was something he reportedly was not good at doing. The results, however, became history.

Some notable politicians such as John Quincy Adams began to take notice. A few writers (either satirists or true-believers) expanded and helped to popularize Symmes Hole. Soon, the man who had been dismissed as an undereducated veteran straddling reality and fantasy was beginning to be taken seriously as “a man of science” by the populous.

By 1822, members of the U.S. Congress were inundated by petitions from citizens who wanted funding for possible expeditions to the poles to find these portals. The efforts were fruitless, however. Eventually, Captain Symmes was near bankruptcy and his health was faltering, due to the pressure of proving his theory to the government.

In his final years, Symmes moved his family to Hamilton, Ohio. He tried in vain to petition the state government of Ohio to recognize his theory. Again, he was shunned.

Still, during these years, he managed to win an important ally, Jeremiah Reynolds, the editor of the Wilmington Spectator. Reynolds would help to spread Symmes’s concept. Also, a book from a Symmes admirer, James McBride, entitled Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres helped to solidify the veteran as a person of note in the eyes of the country.

The attention and notoriety was short-lived. Symmes died in 1829 having never fulfilled his desire to see an expedition to the poles to find his supposed portals.

Admiral Byrd Interview about the Poles: Warning! A few "researchers" use it to push their conspiracy on the Hollow Earth Theory

The Legacy

By 1910, explorations of the poles by Admiral Byrd and others put to rest the Symmes Hole concept. Even the Hollow Earth Theory has all but vanished from scientific textbooks.

Still, the captain managed to influence many in an unintentional way. Over the years, numerous science fiction writers including Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Edgar Rice Burroughs used his concepts as backdrops or settings for their stories. Also, some explorers admittedly were spurned by the idea that Symmes Hole may have existed.

But not all the influences were good. There were many believers within the German Nazi party, especially Adolph Hitler. One unsubstantiated story claims that Hitler sent an expedition of scientist and soldiers to find an escape route through the “opening” at the South Pole during the final days of the war (Carroll, 2012). Another account supposedly came before the war. He ordered an expedition to the North Pole to find a quick way to spy on the British. This particular group didn’t just fail. They were never seen alive, again.

These days, there are still a few holdouts. Many of them are spreading Symmes’s concept to the masses via the Internet. Thus, proving that even in the light of the evidence, there are still a few true-believers.

With the exception of Hamilton Ohio, Symmes is nearly forgotten by the rest of the world. All that remains of the man’s exploit is a grave marker and peculiar monument that was erected by his son. The marker has a globe turned inside out and a plaque proclaiming Symmes as the originator of the concept of the portal to the Hollow Earth. These days, it resides in a small Park baring its name near a park bench and a trash can.

Symmes Memorial    (Photograph copyright © 2000)
Symmes Memorial (Photograph copyright © 2000) | Source

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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    • Amber MV profile image

      Amber MV 8 months ago from Greater Seattle Area

      This is fun! Somebody needs to write a novel or make a movie about finding secret holes in the poles to the underworld. My mind sort of opened with a "woah"– in the imaginations of the 19th century and before, that is what a hollow earth would be inside. An alternative shadow world. Seeing things through historical imaginations is so enjoyable.

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