Storytime with KBC: The Hollow Earth Expedition
Ugh. This friggin’ heat, am I right? You’d think an organization of gods, demigods, and semi-immortal godlike beings from a representative sampling of the world’s various pantheons dedicated to battling the manifestations of Evil in all its myriad forms and protecting humanity from the myths, monsters, and madmen who lurk in the shadows could pry open the pocketbook and spring for A/C in their chief historian’s office. No such luck. I’m stripped down to my skivvies, and I’m still sweating buckets—which really can’t be good for this ancient Assyrian parchment. I think I might have just perspired away a doomsday prophecy. I’m just gonna have to sit here and think cold thoughts. Snowmen. Ice cream. Siberia. Ooh, Siberia!
You might have noticed that Siberia’s been in the news lately, which is pretty impressive for the world’s largest frozen hellscape. It’s the holes. A hat-trick of massive craters have opened up on the remote Yamal Peninsula, dropping away for hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface. Scientists claim to have a few theories about what’s causing it—melting permafrost, methane bursts, that sort of thing—but get enough drinks in one of ‘em and they’ll admit that they don’t have a friggin’ clue what’s going on. But hey, at least it’s just Siberia. Worst thing that can happen up there is a couple reindeer take a tumble into the abyss, right? Wrong. Head down to South Korea, and you’ll find that sinkholes are popping up all over Seoul, threatening to topple a record-breaking skyscraper they’ve got under construction. Or check out Florida, where a sinkhole almost swallowed up a couple of houses this past April. And back in February there was one in Kentucky that ate a bunch of classic cars at a Corvette museum. In 2007, one of ‘em opened up in the middle of Guatemala City that caused fifteen deaths and the evacuation of over a thousand people. Sinkholes have always been around, but over the past decade or so they’ve been swiss-cheesing the planet like crazy, getting worse and more frequent. Almost like something down there’s popping up to say hello.
We usually think of the earth’s surface as being pretty damn solid. That’s what they taught us in school. That’s why we built all this crap on it—we figured it wasn’t going anywhere! So it’s goddamn terrifying to realize that the ground could drop away from you at any moment, leaving you briefly floating over a bottomless pit like so much Wile E. Coyote. So what’s really down there, under the dirt and the rocks? Science tells us it’s somewhere between three and thirty miles of candy-coated crust, followed by 1800 miles of nougaty mantle, 1400 miles of creamy, chocolatey, molten, outer core, and another 760 miles of crispity, crunchity, iron inner core. Sure, that’s one theory; and a pretty damn good one too. Lots of diagrams and complicated math to back it up. But there’s other theories out there. Wilder ones. Weirder ones. Bat$#&@-crazier ones. And they’re no less true!
The Hollow Earth is a common theme in myth and folklore. Hidden lands and lost civilizations that exist inside the empty shell of the earth. Many creation stories tell of the first people coming to the surface from another world beneath the ground. You see it a lot among New World tribes, but it also pops up in China, India, and—hey, look at that—Siberia! They all claim to come from a world inside of the outer world. It’s a common theme in fiction too, especially around the turn of the twentieth century. Everything from Scientific Romances to to Feminist Utopias to Choose-Your-Own-Adventures; pick a genre and somebody probably stuffed it into the Hollow Earth.
So how would something like that work? One of the first people to propose the Hollow Earth as a valid, geological theory was Edmond Halley. Yeah, the comet guy. Based on some weird compass readings, he proposed that the Earth was a sort of matroyshka doll of four nested spheres, each with their own atmospheres. According to Halley, the Aurora Borealis was caused by gas escaping from these inner earths through an opening at the North Pole. It was definitely a weird idea, but Halley at least was a respected astronomer and geophysicist. The guy had the credentials to back up his weird idea. Not so much the case with this other guy…
John Cleves Symmes, Jr. was a soldier in the United States Army who reached the rank of Captain during the War of 1812. He possessed no particular skills in geology, geography, the earth sciences, or really much of anything beyond a basic, 19th century education. So it was a bit of a surprise when, in 1818, he cranked out a handbill, titled “Circular No. 1”:
LIGHT GIVES LIGHT, TO LIGHT DISCOVER—”AD INFINITUM.”ST. LOUIS, (Missouri Territory,)
North America, April 10, A.D. 1818
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.
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 warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 62; we will return in the succeeding spring.
Siberia again! Huh. One more time and it stops being a coincidence. Anyway, this wasn’t just a one-off rant. The dude was super serious about all this. He made 500 copies of the pamphlet and mailed them off to scientists, universities, politicians, and governments in both America and Europe. For Symmes, this wasn’t just an informative document, it was a call to action! There was something on the other side of the ground, and Symmes was going to find it!
Well, needless to say, Symmes didn’t get his hundred brave companions, but he did get some attention. Turns out there were plenty of people around who found the whole “Hollow Earth” thing pretty interesting, and he developed a bit of a following. While he never published his own theories in detail, others—in particular one James McBride who published Symmes’ Theory of Concentric Spheres in 1826—did, describing a model not dissimilar to Halley’s nested globes.
Symmes’ most influential follower, and the reason I’m telling you this story, was a newspaper editor named Jeremiah Reynolds. Reynolds had connections, and in addition to setting Symmes up on a national speaking tour, he managed in 1828 to get an audience with President John Quincy Adams. By all accounts Adams was totally onboard with Symmes theories, and he tasked the Navy with putting together an expedition to the North Pole in search of Symmes’ Hole (hey, no snickering!). A science team was recruited. A crew was assembled. A ship was rebuilt especially for the expedition. It was really gonna happen! Symmes would finally get the chance to explore the world inside of the world.
Man, I wish I could tell you that it all turned out to be real. That the U.S. has been secretly trading with the Molemen for the past couple centuries, and used their advanced, mineral-based technologies to win the Space Race and invent Crystal Pepsi. Alas, the expedition never even happened. Symmes never got a chance to peer into the inner recesses of the planet to see what lay on the other side. John Quincy Adams was on his way out in 1829, and his successor Andrew Jackson didn’t buy in to any of that Hollow Earth malarkey. He was a Flat-Earther all the way! (Okay, so the sources for that particular Jackson-Fact are pretty sketchy, but it’s the one I choose to believe, because it’s goddamn hilarious) Anyway, once Jackson was in office, the Senate wasted no time in putting the kibosh to the whole thing.
And that’s where Symmes’ story ends. I know, you were expecting something with more of the typical, monstery weirdness. Subterranean humanoid races or relict populations of dinosaurs or crap like that. Nope, sorry. Just a boring old tale about a crazy dude and the president. But come on, we came this close to the President of the United States sending the US Navy to explore the Hollow Earth! That’s pretty freaking cool!
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t subterranean humanoid races and relict populations of dinosaurs and crap like that living in the Hollow Earth. They’re definitely there, and they’re bizarre, and we’ll talk more about it next time. Also Nazis.
But right now, I’ve gotta get out of this office—it’s too damn toasty in here to keep spinning yarns. I’m gonna head down to Mad Science and grab a quick forty in one of the cryogenic pods! Those cryotech geeks know a thing or two about beating the heat! Until next time, try to stay cool, folks. And watch your step. Especially if you live in Siberia!