Unless you dabbled in some very dark Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic, it's not every day that someone tracks you down for something you wrote just a little out of high school. "Did you," a nice man from Los Angeles asked in August, "by chance, write the 2011 Cracked article that launched the story of John Quincy Adams and the mole people?"
I guess, yes? I had written something about Adams, the 19th-century president, sure. But what is this about the "story" that was "launched" about the man and our subterranean friends? Nine years ago, did Cracked and I unwittingly sully the 6th president of the United States' good name?
Turns out, the issue of Adams and his alleged underground connections is surprisingly multi-faceted, encompassing the subjectivity of truth and relative ruthlessness of modern-day politics. That story of Cracked and Adams is somehow a statement of the times. It also dredged up in me the siren call of nostalgia -- not only does the distant past feel so attractive now, but even 2011 feels like such a long time ago.
Especially during the pandemic, time seems a blur. It took some Googling for me to even recall any distinguishing events from 2011: The Rock informed us that the United States killed the extremist Osama bin Laden. Podcasts were still a novelty. We were wondering how this whole Marvel Cinematic Universe thing would work out. 2011 was also the year the first-term President Barack Obama made fun of this guy called Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. It was very funny. The days seemed so simple.
Seems pretty tame now in the face of ... you know, everything.
Those were still the early days of Cracked; writers assembled in a secret forum accessible only via special invite. Every member had a default profile picture of a mustachioed Unabomber and had the title "Purveyor of Dick Jokes." I've since moved on from Cracked to more straightforward journalism and have even written a book. Back then, though, I was just about to go to university in Canada. Cracked was one of my first writing gigs. To be crowned "a purveyor of dick jokes" was like a handshake from God for me.
I wrote about the important issues of the time, including The 7 Most Impressive Examples of Animal Architecture, The 6 Weirdest Dangers of Space Travel, 7 Modern Dictators Way Crazier Than You Thought Possible, and its epic sequel The 5 Most Shockingly Insane Modern Dictators. There was also, of course, "6 Presidential Secrets Your History Teacher Didn't Mention," published on January 4th, 2011, the subject of this recent blast from the past.
The Los Angeles man who emailed me is named Howard Dorre, a history enthusiast. He runs the podcast Plodding through the Presidents. According to him, in the nine years since my Cracked article dropped, it's apparently spiraled totally out of control. The article's the source of the now wide-spread factoid that John Quincy Adams believed in a hollow Earth inhabited by mole people.
Adams had supported an expedition to the South Pole. It was a legitimate scientific journey. Among its many tasks was to see if the Earth was really hollow, but that aspect was the result of the influence of a guy whom everyone thought was a bit odd -- that weird friend of yours whom everyone describes as, "Oh, him? Yeah, he's weird." Quoting another writer, Dorre says Adams supported the trip only after the proponent had abandoned the hollow-Earth part. Humor, however, demands its own specific language. I wrote that the man behind that expedition wanted to "conduct trade with the mole people."
"If the venture had been successful, America's Mushroom Reserve would have been secured for generations," read a photo caption, which I didn't write but laughed at like everyone else. And of course, the title of that section read, "John Quincy Adams Was a Little Insane." The fact that Adams looked like a crazy uncle didn't help. Cracked later expanded on the matter with a video that featured Adams with wild spirals in his eyes.
"Then, in 2015," the history enthusiast Dorre writes, "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," Dorre continues. "The Smithsonian owes its very existence to John Quincy Adams."
"Why is this important?" you ask. The significance of the issue, Dorre says, is that "it has been used as a sort of precedent of presidents believing in conspiracy theories." Of course, he is referring to QAnon, the conspiracy belief that President Donald Trump is the champion of a secret war against systemic pedophilia by Democrats. Trump himself has praised QAnon and, in an October 15th town hall, refused to denounce it. At least one online article effectively uses Adams's alleged beliefs to normalize Trump and QAnon -- hey, it's totally cool for Trump to believe in crazy shit; Adams believed in mole people!
There is also a broader connection between the two men. There have been several new biographies of Adams and new editions of his diaries published in recent years, while a group is working on getting the man a statue in Washington. "The Revival of John Quincy Adams," reads an Atlantic article from 2017. Part of that is due to Trump's admiration for -- and historians' comparison of him to -- the controversial President Andrew Jackson, Adams's mortal enemy.
No doubt, part of that revival is also a yearning for a simpler time when candidates do not talk over each other in debates; or mock his opponent's son's drug problem. A time of less bitterness and division.
The reason behind that revival is the same as that behind the popularity of the play Hamilton. Comparing Adams to Trump clashes against that yearning. It stains that rosy picture we want to see. So in that way, "mole people" resonates in more ways than one. The term describes the destitute living underground, but it's also a comic book trope, more often than not referencing one-dimensional, ridiculous villains. At the time, the term came to me from a Marvel comics' scene that presciently encapsulates everything about yearning and nostalgia.
Over the years, comic book storylines have become more sophisticated. Heroes went from dealing with cartoonish villains to well-written, morally grey antiheroes. There's little right or wrong; plotlines are complicated. In a very meta scene I was reading in 2010, the Fantastic Four's the Thing went to France and saw that country's more idealistic heroes were still dealing with the simpler threats of early comic books. It was an invasion by the mole people. The Thing cried, realizing how much he yearned for simpler days.
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 and in no way comparable to Trump.
Since writing for Cracked nine years ago, Ethan Lou has worked for the Toronto Star and Reuters. He is the author of the new book Field Notes from a Pandemic, a travelogue through COVID-19 lockdown, published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada.
Top image: White House Historical Association, Santia/Shutterstock