Earth isn’t hollow, but this story is.
According to several websites, the brilliant John Quincy Adams was somehow disconnected enough from reality to believe that the earth was hollow and inhabited by mole people, and he wanted to spend taxpayer dollars to fund an expedition to meet these mole people.
If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. There is a very good reason this story does not appear in any biography of John Quincy Adams, or in any book or article created by historians.
It’s simply not true.
But don’t take my word for it.
The Story’s Origins
Writer J. L. Bell in his Boston1775 blog dug into the origins of this tale, and I encourage everyone to read his short 3-piece series on it starting with his article “I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within.” A word of warning though: Bell’s blog is a captivating gateway to a rabbit hole of early US history you may not easily escape from.
Bell explains how this story got started with a man named John Cleeves Symmes. Symmes believed the earth was hollow and made quite a name for himself talking about it. John Quincy Adams became associated with this theory because he once proposed an expedition to the Southern oceans led by a former follower of Symmes, Jeremiah N. Reynolds – but only after Reynolds abandoned the hollow earth idea.
Adams really was interested in exploring the South Pole, but he thought the hollow earth theory was ridiculous. And there is absolutely no evidence that he ever believed in “mole people.” As Bell notes, the phrase “mole people” didn’t even come into being until the 20th century.
So where did the idea that John Quincy Adams supported this theory come from? The best explanation for the confusion, according to Bell, is the fact that Adams called Symmes’ theory “visionary” in his diary:
“…the theory itself has been so much ridiculed, and is in truth so visionary, that Reynolds has now varied his purpose to the proposition of fitting out a voyage of circumnavigation to the Southern Ocean.”
Today, saying something is “in truth so visionary” would mean it is brilliantly ahead of its time. Back then, it meant being the product of a disturbed imagination, and there is ample evidence backing up this usage of the word. For example, in his letter trashing John Adams ahead of the Election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton said Adams was “infected with some visionary notions.” It was most definitely not a compliment.
How It Spread
As I started researching the sixth president, I was disappointed to find that the most interesting “fun facts” about him were fake, and even more disappointed at how ubiquitous those are on the internet. That’s why my wife Jess and I covered this mole people myth in our podcast episode “John Quincy Adams vs. The Internet.”
Despite our little podcast, the mole people story is still being spread online – just this week by IFLScience, in fact. That’s why I decided to write this article, so people searching for the truth would have a better chance of finding it. I hope to squash this mole people myth like I attempted to squash the myths of John Quincy Adams’s pet alligator and his skinny dipping interview. (Based on my unscientific data, Twitter mentions and new stories about those legends have dropped considerably since my pieces came out.)
Stamping this story out requires digging into its spread. J. L. Bell traces the story back as far as a 2011 Cracked.com article called 6 Presidential Secrets Your History Teacher Didn’t Mention which claims John Quincy Adams was “a little insane.” This story seems to be the earliest connection between Adams and mole people and it cites Adams’s memoirs as the source, suggesting they were likely confused by the original definition of “visionary.”
To find out more, I reached out to Ethan Lou, the author of that 2011 Cracked piece on Twitter. I asked him what he thought about his piece launching the story of JQA and the mole people, and he said he couldn’t “speak to what the article in question did or did not launch,” but that he wrote it when he was “just a little out of high school.”
Cracked later expanded this story into a video which doesn’t do Adams any favors. Here’s a screenshot:
Then, in 2015, the usually-reputable io9 published a story called “Which President Greenlit A Trip To The Center Of The Earth?” and their unsourced article became the source for Smithsonian Magazine to repeat the myth without checking their facts in their “SmartNews” article “John Quincy Adams Once Approved an Expedition to the Center of the Earth.” This is where the story really took off.
There is a depressing irony in the Smithsonian Institution being the chief propagator of this falsehood. The Smithsonian owes its very existence to John Quincy Adams. He fought in Congress to ensure that wealthy English scientist James Smithson’s generous bequest to the United States to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” was used for its intended purposes. And now, it almost seems like they don’t care about their early champion’s legacy. (I’ve reached out several times through various methods to see if their editors might consider updating their article, and there has been no response.)
Smithsonian’s Presidents Visual Encyclopedia doesn’t do Adams’s legacy much better. It lists a quote for each president, and the one they list for John Quincy Adams is: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” The problem with this oft-repeated quote is that Adams never said anything remotely like it; the statement has been traced back not to a 19th century statesman but to the truly inspiring Dolly Parton.
I reached out on Twitter to let them know about this and to their credit they were very responsive, assuring me that the next edition would be updated with an accurate quote. That edition will presumably be printed whenever there is a new president. (In case you needed another reason to vote.)
Why It Matters
I realize there are much more pressing issues in the world, but I can’t pretend this story doesn’t matter to history. It has become an example of the flawed idea that people in the past were dumb – even the supposedly smart elite people – and we’re all so much smarter now! Or worse, it has been used as a sort of precedent of presidents believing in conspiracy theories.
It is irresponsible to cite a fake story about Adams to somehow equate his beliefs with the current president’s support of an absurd conspiracy theory that the FBI considers a domestic terrorism threat.
One person who agrees is the apparent originator of this myth, Ethan Lou. The Canadian journalist who started his career with Cracked has a new book coming out, Field Notes From A Pandemic, about visiting his dying grandfather in Beijing in January 2020 at the onset of a world-changing outbreak. He says that in the book, “there is a part about how an online outlet misquoted Bill Gates on vaccination status and chip implants, and the news spread like a prairie fire.” Relating that to the way this mole people story is being spread, he said, “I can definitely see the issue if this is being used to normalize QAnon.”
Adams was arguably the most intelligent man ever to be president. He was also, after his presidency, a staunchly anti-slavery member of the House of Representatives. One Southern colleague called him “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed.” Instead of being derided for wacky ideas he never had, he should be held up as an example of good trouble.
John Quincy Adams deserves better than poorly researched clickbait articles from institutions that purport to share true stories about our history and our world.
Update August 30, 2020: More details about the origin of this myth on Cracked.com were added.
Update November 3, 2020: Cracked.com has officially apologized for their role in spreading this myth after I reached out to writer Ethan Lou! In his piece Cracked Apologizes to John Quincy Adams, Lou writes: “At the time, I used the term “mole people” simply because it was funny. I didn’t know how poignant it was going to become. Now, nine years later in a world that makes increasingly less sense — I really can’t say if Cracked is, in fact, the genesis of all that, but I can say this: John Quincy Adams was not insane…”
Update June 4, 2021: Smithsonian’s newest edition of The Presidents Visual Encyclopedia has updated their misattributed John Quincy Adams quote to an authentic one.