This started as an experiment just to see how many digital sources I could find for this obscure figure in American history. Answer: quite a lot, really.
A year after the end of WWII, noted astronomer Gerard Kuiper (for whom the Kuiper Belt is named) published an article in Popular Astronomy describing the German astronomical work undertaken during the period in which communications had broken down. He bemoaned the “intellectual deterioration” that had allowed many German scientists to embrace pseudo-scientific theories. As an example, he mentions Nazi scientists who aimed infrared equipment upward, hoping to catch images of a British fleet on the other side of the globe. For this he blames “hohlwelt-theorie,” or hollow earth theory.
Pullquote: Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span…
But wait a minute, that still doesn’t make sense. The hollow earth theory was first proposed by Edmund Halley, and it conjectured that the earth was a series of concentric spheres. This would not allow anyone to view the other side of the globe.
Later proponents, like John Cleves Symmes, simply refined the theory. Symmes argued that there were holes at the poles that would allow explorers to venture inside, and he hoped to lead such an expedition. (This was an inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.)
In order for the supposed Nazi experiment to work, we’d have to live on the inside of a hollow earth. We’d need to live on a concave inner surface, so that Nazi scientists could look up and see British ships on the other side. The only person I’ve found who advanced that idea was Cyrus R. Teed, a religious and scientific eccentric from the Burned Over District.
Pullquote: “In 1870, the Author of the Koreshan System of Universology, upon the basis of the law of comparative analogy, announced the discovery of the cosmogonic form, which he then declared to be cellular, the surface of the earth being concave, with a curvature of about eight inched to the mile.”
In addition to having one of the better names in American religious history (sounds like a B-Western villain, doesn’t he?), Teed was a true son of the Burned Over District. Born in 1839, he grew up in Upstate New York, worked the Eerie Canal, served in the infantry during the Civil War and eventually trained to be a physician.
By 1869 he was also a dabbler in alchemy. According to one version of the story, one of Teed’s experiments gave him a nasty electric shock and left him unconscious, during which time he had a vision. (Another version has him receiving a vision after making a philosopher’s stone.)
Teed claimed that God had appeared as a female figure, and henceforth he considered God both Father and Mother. Then the proper understanding of the universe was given to him; Teed called this revelation “cellular cosmology,” since the universe was like a “alchemo-organic cell.” It’s a classic example of an ancient theory that the macrocosm will reflect the microcosm. Heaven and earth are like a living cell; as above, so below.
Pullquote: “We live inside”
When his medical practice declined and the mop business was wrung out (sorry) Teed was able to found a communal society of his own. It started in Chicago, then moved to Florida, where it was incorporated as the “Koreshan Unity” in 1903. No long thereafter, the society rose to 250 members.
Apparently, politics were his undoing. In 1906, he tried to play peacemaker during an argument over local politics, and ended up taking injuries when the argument turned violent. His injuries slowly worsened over time, and he died two years later. After his death, and failure to resurrect, the membership of his organization declined.
From the Upstate to Germany?
Pullquote: “One of the symptoms of intellectual deterioration in Nazi Germany was the wide-spread use of pseudo-scientific theories.”
I’m always interested in seeing how far the influence of the Burned Over District goes. Obviously, the Church of LDS has expanded across the globe, extending the reach of Joesph Smith’s Upstate blend of religion and occultism around the world. But did a theory invented by a single religious eccentric make it across the Atlantic to the Nazis?
Arguing for it is the oddness of the theory. Could two separate people come up with the same idea, when that idea runs so contrary to our own experience? Arguing against it is the lack of documentation. While I think that Kuiper is trustworthy, there’s no guarantee that he wasn’t accidentally passing on a legend.
There is one definite connection between the Koreshian Unity and the Nazis, although it runs the other way. The final resurgence of the Unity came in 1940, when a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany named Hedwig Michel reorganized the dying group. But even she couldn’t stave off the inevitable, and she oversaw the transfer of the organization’s property to the state of Florida in 1961.
The Koreshans, the unofficial blog of the Koreshan State Historic Site.
The Koreshan Virtual Archives, which lists the archival holdings of the official Koreshan State Historic Site.
Turning the Universe Inside-Out, from skeptic Donald Simanek. Simanek examines an experiment performed by one of Teed’s supporters, which “proved” the earth was concave.