Cyrus Read Teed didn’t set out to become the charismatic spiritual leader of one of the strangest religious cults in the late nineteenth century. Nor did this shy, well-mannered farm boy from upstate New York dream his name would someday be linked to one of pseudo-science’s most bizarre theories: cellular cosmogony.
It all began during the Civil War when young Teed was called away to fight for his country in the Union army. During the war years, while recuperating from a sunstroke that left his left arm and leg paralyzed, he heard stories about strange creatures supposedly living at the earth’s core. How was that possible, he wondered, unless the earth was hollow?
|New York 1890|
In time the knowledge-hungry young New Yorker found that many scientifically accepted theories circulating in those days clashed not only with his religious principles but with his own developing ideas of a smaller, more compact universe.
While working in his laboratory late one night in the autumn of 1869, Teed experienced what he called a “divine illumination.” A vision told hi how to turn lead into gold — an ancient alchemist secret known as the “Philosopher’s Stone.” Later that evening he had a vision in which God appeared to him in the form of a beautiful woman and revealed the secrets of the universe to him.
One secret that emerged dealt with “Cellular Cosmology” — the belief that the earth is practically stationary in time and space and exists as a concave sphere, with all life on its inner surface—kind of like a gigantic inverted cave. His controversial notion was outlined in a book called The Cellular Cosmogony, or The Earth in a Concave Sphere, which he wrote under his adopted name of Korean, the ancient Hebrew name of Cyrus.
According to this view, the known world is located on the inside of the earth’s curvature, beyond which there is only the darkness of a celestial void. At the center of the sphere, rotating in unison, are the denser atmosphere that screens the other side of the globe.
To prove his theory, Teed measured the curvature of the earth—a measurement that contradicted the Copenican hypothesis but which has yet to be disproved. In fact, he offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove wrong his measurements or theory. He found plenty of takers, but each time scientific measurements were made, the results were the same as Teed’s.
“To know of the earth’s concavity,” he once wrote, “is to know God, while to believe in the earth’s convexity is to deny Him and all His works. All that is opposed to Koreshanity is antiChrist.”
The concept of a hollow earth was nothing new in Teed’s time. Many people still accepted British astronomer Edmund Halley’s theory of a hollow earth as fact. Halley, of comet fame, had proposed that the earth might consist of several concentric spheres placed inside one another in the manner of a Chinese box puzzle. More starling was the scientist’s contention that some of these spheres might support life!
|Edgar Rice Burroughs|
In 1906, a book called Phantom of the Poles followed up on the hollow earth theory. Said author William Reed: “I am able to prove my theory that the earth is not only hollow, but suitable in its interior to sustain human life with as little discomfort as on its exterior....”
Somewhat more influential than Reed was Marshall B. Gardner, who rejected the “absurd”notion of Symmes but enthusiastically adopted the idea of openings at the poles. Gardner believed the interior of the earth was illuminated by a small sun about six hundred miles in diameter. When Admiral Richard E. Byrd flew over the North Pole in 1926 and saw no gaping holes, Gardner countered by suggesting the government was covering them up from the public.
Buoyed by these and his own findings, Teed decided he needed a quiet, isolated place to work and to establish his own concept of social and religious order. In 1894 he found such a place on the banks of the Estero River deep in southwest Florida—a three-hundred-acre tract of land he called the Koreshan Unity.
Starting with only a handful of followers, the evangelical alchemists and herbalist went to work building a new society dedicated to the principles advanced in his new cosmology. The new settlement—which he named Estero—soon opened its doors to scores of other disciples from as far away as Chicago. All along, Teed believed that Estero would become one of the world’s great intellectual and religious centers.
In planning his “New Jerusalem” in Florida, Teed visited several communes, including one established by the Harmony Society in Economy, Pennsylvania. He saw firsthand the everyday workings of communal societies—models, he felt, of celibacy and communism. He also spent some time with the North Family of Shakers in Lebanon, New York, where he was admitted as a full member.
Teed and his faithful flock spent the next decade building more houses and libraries and churches in the wilderness. They also built a thriving tropical nursery, a handsome Art Hall, tennis courts, baseball fields, marinas, a general store and even a museum devoted to the display and interpretation of Teed’s curious teachings and scientific research.
|Model of Teed's Museum|
In spite of Teed’s spellbinding oratorical and marketing skills, his “New Jerusalem” in the Florida sun never reached the population of ten million converts that had been his much-publicized goal. In 1908, two days after Christmas, the old visionary died from injuries received during a political brawl in Fort Myers, leaving behind his unfinished city and a personal and professional legacy steeped in mystery and legend.
To this day, no one know where the enigmatic spiritual leader got the money to finance his project. Nor is it clear how he managed to lure scores of young women—many of them married—to his Florida hideaway.
After his death, Teed’s body was placed in an immense mausoleum. The corpse was guarded twenty-four hours a day by teams of young women and men because of his promise to rise from the dead. Many of his followers believed he would be resurrected on Christmas Day the following year.
Forty years later the state of Florida turned what was left of Teed’s religious and intellectual empire into the Koreshan Statre Historic Site.
Here many of Teed’s original books and furniture are on display, as well as an exhibit showing in three dimensions how his radical “cellular cell” theory puts the surface of the earth on the inside of the globe. Many of the founders’ other bizarre beliefs are analyzed with charts and diagrams, including his contention that the on is an illusion, that gravity is really centrifugal force and that a horizontal line on the earth’s surface eventually intersects the earth’s upward curvature.
Other displays seek to prove his theory that the sphere is about twenty-five thousand miles around, just as the scientists say, and that China is about eight thousand miles away, through the earth’s center—straight up!