Fact Check

Chain Letters

A discussion of the history and various types of chain letters.

Published May 5, 2005

Topic:   A discussion of the history and various types of chain letters.

Origins:   The practice of circulating letters to other parties beyond their original recipients has existed for centuries, so pinpointing the exact origin of chain letters is problematic. While all manner of written materials (letters, speeches, eye-witness accounts, polemics, recipes, cures, prayers) have in the past been circulated to ever-widening circles of recipients, the first full-fledged chain letter recorded by Daniel W. VanArsdale in his massive archive of the genre is dated 1888. If we accept that a true chain letter must contain within its text an explicit instruction to the reader to make copies of the mailing and put them into the hands of a specified number of new recipients, that 1888 date is a defensible notch on the timeline of

Chain letters

history to point to as the moment of origin. If, however, we're willing to settle for an implied instruction to
pass the item to others for their benefit, protection, or well-being, certain written communications dating to the Middle Ages could fairly be considered the first of this sort. In them, their writers set down what they believed to be useful cures, on the understanding that such missives were to be recopied by those who received them then distributed to those people's loved ones, who in turn would themselves recopy these wisdoms to hand to their nearest and dearest. These letters were also sold by peddlers and fortune tellers. The cures detailed therein were typically combinations of recipes for simple nostrums and special prayers to be recited as the concoctions were mixed or administered.

Our modern world sees chain letters of a variety of descriptions circulated by surface mail, fax machine, and in e-mail. While folk cures and accompanying prayers have dropped from favor (as medical information and resources became easier to access, such intelligences became less vital), other sorts of "Send this to five of your friends!" mailings emerged to fill this gap.

Contemporary chain letters fall into five broad categories:

  • Money-generating (aka pyramid or Ponzi schemes)

  • Luck-generation (or ill luck avoidance)

  • Altruistic

  • Something for nothing

  • Humor

Money-generating (pyramid or Ponzi scheme) chain letters hold out the promise of untold riches to those gulled into participating in their circulation. In their most common form, recipients are instructed to send a token set dollar figure ($5, for example) to the name at the top of the group's roll call, strike that name and address from the list of those involved, add their own to the base of the register, recopy the amended letter, and mail it to five of their acquaintances. If all goes according to plan, their small investment will reap them a fortune once their names percolate to the top of the list.

(Pyramid schemes exist in many forms and go by many names. Deserving of particular mention are "gifting circles" or "gifting clubs" wherein folks pay substantial chunks of cash [$5,000, for example] to be included on a chart of like-minded investors, the object being that as new people are added behind them, they will move higher on the diagram one tier at a time until ultimately they occupy the top spot, at which moment they will receive the pool of money accumulated behind them.

Such endeavors have operated under the names of "Elite Activity," "Women Empowering Women," "The Dinner Club," "Spirit of Giving" and so many more that we couldn't possibly ever list them all.)

So much can go wrong with pyramid contrivances that their pitfalls hardly needs explaining. First, for pyramid investments to work, the world would need an endless supply of people, each of them with money in hand and determined to participate in the process. Because each level of the pyramid increases exponentially the throng of investors involved, the numbers soon lose meaning. For instance, suppose the money-generating come-on you received in the mail displayed five names. If everyone in the chain had followed instructions and mailed it to five of their friends, by the time it reached you it had already been through 3,905 pairs of hands, and that only provided the first person listed was the one who began the progression. Add one more level (either from having a sixth name on the roll or through one of the names having already been moved off from the top), and the number involved jumps to 19,530. Add two, and it reaches 97,655.

Second, not everyone is honest, so there will always be those who will simply insert their names near the top of the roll rather than at its base. Names added honestly, therefore, will fail to move up past this ever-changing invisible ceiling (as new people enter the chain, they too will try this trick). Also, that someone receives the circular and passes it along to five acquaintances does not necessarily mean he sent his requisite sum to the name heading the roster.

However, the biggest argument against money-generating chain letters is their illegality. Missives that request money or other items of value and promise substantial returns to the participants are against the law. Sending them through the mail (or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate) violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, of the Postal Lottery Statute.

At various times the unscrupulous have tried to circumvent the aspects of money-generating chain letters that render them illegal. One common attempt is the inclusion of the additional step of having participants send recipe cards or other relatively-worthless small items along with the cash, thereby transforming the process into a legitimate enterprise wherein those particular trifles are being vended. Another is to go the opposite way, that is, label all monies involved as "gifts" (see section above about gifting clubs). Yet another is to process as much of the proposition as possible via non-postal routes. However, no matter what technology or plausible-sounding subterfuge (e.g.; sale of credit reports or mailing lists) is used, if at any point anything passes by surface mail, the entire maneuver becomes illegal. Says the USPS:

Recently, high-tech chain letters have begun surfacing. They may be disseminated over the Internet, or may require the copying and mailing of computer disks rather than paper. Regardless of what technology is used to advance the scheme, if the mail is used at any step along the way, it is still illegal.

An example of a "money generating" chain letter:

[Collected via surface mail, 1975]

DO YOU NEED $8,000? ? ? ? ? ?
Let Bill Nelson tell you how I have run one of these promotion letters — four times in the past year. The First time I received $7,000 in cash and around $7,800 the other three. It this letter is continued as it should be, everyone profits! Yes, and don't worry about financing or paying money back. After the first time, you'll see what I mean, and next time you will be more eager and glad. Now, let me give you the complete story and details.

Please forward them and in about 30 days you will be $8,000 richer.

This letter will pay up to $8,000 because there are only four names at all times. Three moves and you are in a position to receive one dollar from each participant. This chain letter was initiated by William Neham from Nashville, Tennessee, for the purpose of investment capital. But, now this has been expanded. Your participation is one dollar to the first person or firm in the Number One position below, while omitting the name to whom you sent the dollar. Then, move the list of names up one place and place your name at the bottom. Mail a copy of this letter to 20 new prospects.

MAIL YOUR LETTERS within 48 HOURS AND DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN. When your name reaches the Number One position, it will be your turn to collect the fees. They will be sent to you by 8,000 persons like yourself. Please DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN BECAUSE IT REALLY WORKS!! In fact, I guarantee it, provided you do not break the chain and follow the simple rules above. Try it and see. You are investing ONLY, ONE DOLLAR, and that is all you can lose. Be sure to copy this letter completely. Don't leave any of it out.

Send your report to Imperial Sales Company, 3096 Ivey Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee 37914. Let us know when your fee was sent and how much you received within nine days. We have at the present time almost 100% return to the people carrying out this letter promotion. The majority received $7,800. If four names should be listed on your promotion, the one in Number One position is omitted, after you send him your one dollar. Then, put your name and address in the Number Four position.

$8,000 is capital absolutely free! Send letters only to people who have secretaries or whom you personally consider "Doers." Look — 20 times 20 times 20 equals 8,000!!!!.

While money-generating chain letters flourish in both the off- and online worlds, "Make Money Fast!" hustles have become so much a part of online culture that they have spawned any number of parodies. This next example is one such howler we particularly treasure:

[Collected on the Internet, 1998]


Recent evidence has come to light that suggests that pyramid style chain letters may have pre-dated Dave Rhodes by a considerable margin. Palaentologists recently deciphered the following, painted on a cave wall on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.


Hello, not-tribe-member. Urk name Urk. Many moons ago, Urk in bad way. Urk kicked out of cave by Thag. Thag bigger than Urk, Thag take Urk spiky club, Urka (Urk wo-man). Urk not able kill deer, must eat leaves, berries. Urk flee from wolves.

Today, Urk big chief. Urk have best cave, many wives, many spiky clubs. Urk tell how.

WHAT DO: make one spiky club and take to cave places below. Add own cave place to bottom of list, take cave place off top. Put new message on walls many caves. Wait. Many clubs soon come! This not crime! Urk ask shaman, gods say okay.


1) Urk
First cave
Olduvai Gorge

few) Thag (not that Thag, other Thag)
old dead tree
by lake shaped like mammoth

few) Og
big rock with overhang
near pig game trail

Many) Zog
river caves
where river meet big water

Urk hope not-tribe-member do what Urk say do. That only way it work.

While Urk and his quest for spiky clubs leaves a smile on our faces, the second sort of chain letters provokes the opposite response: a worried frown. Even the most rational and level-headed can't help but feel a bit uneasy when they drop luck-generation chain letters into the nearest trash bin. This type of imploration, which promises good luck even as it threatens ill fortune to rain down on the heads of those who fail to speed it on its way, tends to follow a standard outline. (Not all chain letters of this ilk scrupulously adhere to this formula; certain elements may be omitted in some of the entreaties you encounter.)

  • Invocation:   The letter begins with an admonition to pray, trust the Lord, or kiss someone as an expression of love.
  • Origins:   A description of the person who began the letter (a priest, a saint, a sea captain, a doctor) and where (Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands) is given. Often included is a claim of the letter's having been around the world a stated number of times.
  • Success Story:   Accounts of the happy circumstances of a few people who followed instructions to send the letter on its way are given, with their rewards (financial windfall, sudden luck in matters of romance, miraculous recovery from illness) described in glowing detail.
  • Punishment Story:   Accounts are given of the setbacks or tragedies (job loss, broken heart, injury or death) that befell a few people who ignored the letter or threw it away.
  • Instruction and Promise:   The recipient is told how many copies of the letter to distribute and is reassured that good luck will swiftly follow.

An example of a contemporary "luck generation" chain letter sent by e-mail.

[Collected on the Internet, 2000]

CASE 1: Kelly Sedey had one wish, for her boyfriend of three years, David Marsden, to propose to her. Then one day when she was out to lunch David proposed! She accepted, but then had to leave because she had a meeting in 20 min. When she got to her office, she noticed on her computer she had e-mail. She checked it, the usual stuff from her friends, but then she saw one that she had never gotten before. was this letter. She *simply deleted it without even reading it all. BIG MISTAKE! Later that evening, she received a phone call from the police. It was about DAVID! He had been in an accident with an 18 wheeler. He didn't survive.

CASE 2: Take Katie Robbenson. She received this letter and being the believer that she was, she sent it to a few of her friends but didn't have enough e-mail addresses to send out the full 10 that you must. Three days later, Katie went to a masquerade ball. Later that night when she left to get to her car to go home, she was killed on the spot by a hit-and-run drunk driver.

CASE 3: Richard S. Willis sent this letter out within 45 minutes of reading it. Not even 4 hours later walking along the street to his new job interveiw with a really big company, when he ran into Cynthia Bell, his secret love for 5 years. Cynthia came up to him and told him of her passionate crush on him that she had had on him for 2 years. Three days later, he proposed to her and they got married. Cynthia and Richard are Still married with three children, happy as ever!

This is the letter:

You must send this on in 3 hours after reading the letter to 10 different people. If you do this, you will receive unbeleveably good luck in love. The person that you are most attracted to will soon return your feelings. If you do not, bad luck will rear it's ugly head at you. THIS IS NOT A JOKE! You have read the warnings, seen the cases, and the consiquences. You MUST send this on or face dreadfuly bad luck.

*NOTE* The more people that you send this to, the better luck you will have.

P.S. I did not make this up,someone sent it to me and I am passing it on! You Send it by clicking forward on the side

The avoidance of ill luck features in numerous chain letters, especially the "crazed killer" sort prized by prepubescent girls who delight in forwarding "a crazed killer or vengeful spirit will come for you if you don't forward this message to others" tales. These next examples were sent by text message via cell phone:

[Collected via e-mail, September 2009]

A picture of a girl with a graduation cap on the caption read: "Hi, my name is Alexis, I am 7 years old about 1 year ago me and my dad got into a big fight, he slit my throat and threw me down the sewer. There was this girl named Alissia and she got the same text message you are getting now and she just erased it and didn't think about it. Later on, around midnight, she heard laughing coming from her bathroom and she quickly sent that message to 10 people. Later on that night, her parents heard laughing and cutting. When they came it to check in the bathroom, Alissia's blood was everywhere. Now that you have read this message about Alissia's death, I must kill you too unless you send this message to 10 people — no send backs. I'll be waiting for you at midnight if you don't do this.

don't ignore this. once a little girl was so obsessed with taking pictures of herself and one day she took a picture of herself and when she looked at herself she thought something wasn't right. she heard a girl laughing and turned... this was the last picture she took before she went missing. they found her in the backyard with scratches and blood everywhere... one girl named Aliie dint belive this and deleted it. that night she heard laughing and went and forwarded this message, but it was too late. an hour later her parents found her in the bathtub covered in blood. fwd this to ten ppl or she will be waiting under your bed at 12 tonight. if you don't belive it, then save the pictures and zoom in to the right bottom corner.

Piggy back 09

Altruistic chain letters are those that present themselves as seeking benefit for others rather than the financial enrichment or improvement of luck of their recipients/forwarders. Into this category fall prayers for the suffering and collections made on behalf of charitable groups or the needy themselves.

While this form of the genre might indeed be the oldest (according to Daniel W. VanArsdale, the first full-fledged chain letter was of this sort; it called for the donation of dimes to "poor whites in the region of the Cumberlands"), the Internet has added new expressions of it. Many "dying child" hoaxes circulate online, each of them asserting every forward of their supplications will result in benefactors (either named charities or corporations or unnamed millionaires) directing set sums towards the care of the stricken youngsters. While these lack the specificity of "Send this to four people" instructions (they instead direct recipients to "Forward this to everyone you know"), the languishing children are imaginary, and the forwarders add nothing of themselves to the mix (neither prayers nor donations), they are a close enough fit with the altruistic class of chain letters to be considered a legitimate variant.

Closer yet are the myriad prayer requests (e.g., the Delaney Parrish appeal) that have sprung to life on the Internet. While the "Send this to ten people" command is still absent ("Send to as many as you can" and its ilk being used instead), the people being pled for often do exist, with their travails often as described, and those moved to keep the chain going are adding something of themselves (their petitions to God) to the process.

Similarly, various appeals of the "dying child intent upon collecting specific items" nature (e.g.; the Craig Shergold appeal for business cards) are also close fits. While not all entreaties of this sort are on the up-and-up, a fair number are — the children and their situations are real, as are their requests. Those participating in these chains not only pass along the requests to their circles of acquaintance but also themselves donate the items requested and transport them to the youngsters.

Moving to the "something for nothing" category, we find online appeals aimed at augmenting the bank accounts or wardrobes of their participants, bringing them fame, or entertaining them. Of the first sort, the granddaddy of them all is the e-mail tracking hoax: Bill Gates is testing an e-mail tracking program and for taking part by forwarding his note you will receive $1,000. (Or Disney will reward you with a trip for two to Disney World. Or Nike will give you free shoes. Or Veuve-Clicquot will bless you with some gratis champagne. Or Applebees will treat you to a dinner for you and your date. Or, well, the list is endless.) These differ from "money-generating" chain letters in one important way: those involved do not themselves send any of their own money or possessions to anyone else, they merely forward the leg-pulls in the expectation that by doing so the promised goodies will come their way.

A less mercenary example of a "something for nothing" chain letter that plays upon the urge to seek fame rather than fortune is the Guinness World Book of Records hoax which states as its goal the establishment of a world record. For years, children have been gulled into participating in these mailings by the promise of their names being listed in that fabled book if the chain is kept alive long enough for a record to be set. More recently a snail mail version has supplemented the e-mail jape of the same design, so the hoax exists in both the offline and online worlds.

"Something for nothing" e-mail chain letters that hold out as the forwarders' reward the promise of entertainment are a form of practical joke of the "Made you look foolish" variety. Potential victims are told their sending these e-mails to the requisite number of new people (as spelled out in proposition) will cause them to receive the next installments of intriguing stories they have become caught up in reading or their computers to spontaneously begin playing either humorous animated clips (e.g. Ronald McDonald beating up the Taco Bell dog) or videos of lusted-after celebrities caught off-guard doing naughty things. But of course the promised carrots never arrive; the next chapters of novelettes fail to mail themselves and videos don't spring to life. We detail a great many such hokey come-ons in our Clip Artless article.

We now come to the final category of chain letter: Humor. Though these offerings mimic the form taken by their money-generating cousins, those who receive them don't mistake them for anything other than jokes. These mailings are solely meant to provoke rueful smiles or outright guffaws among those they are happily flung to; they are not intended to prompt recipients to actually mail off the items or persons described in hopes of getting back a great many more of like nature. For instance, one well-known humor chain letter instructs dissatisfied wives to bundle up their good-for-nothing husbands and mail them to the woman whose name appears at the head of the list; when the senders' names arise to the top spot they are guaranteed to receive thousands of similarly-discarded spouses, some of which might prove worth keeping (the implication being that most will not). Yet don't break the chain, admonishes the letter — one woman who did got her own husband back!

Barbara "return to sender" Mikkelson

Additional information:

    SEC on Ponzi Schemes   Ponzi Schemes   (Securities and Exchange Commission)

    SEC on Pyramid Schemes   Pyramid Schemes   (Securities and Exchange Commission)

    The Gifting Club 'Gotcha'   Gifting Clubs   (Federal Trade Commission)

Last updated:   27 September 2009

  Sources Sources:

    Degh, Linda.   Legend and Belief.

    London: Souvenir Press, 1978.   0-285-63396-1   (pp. 189-193).

    Waring, Philippa.   A Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions.

    Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001.   0-253-33929-4   (p. 52).

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