How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

10 Famous Siblings Who Conquered the World

The Williams sisters have won plenty of gold on their own and in doubles competition.
The Williams sisters have won plenty of gold on their own and in doubles competition.
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Whether you adore them or they drive you crazy, siblings play a major part in family dynamics. And while it’s noteworthy when one person in a family accomplishes great things, it’s doubly (or triply) remarkable when multiple siblings achieve greatness. To celebrate National Sibling Day, we’re taking a look at 10 sets of seriously accomplished siblings.

1. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

The Brothers Grimm.
A portrait of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even if you know nothing about the Brothers Grimm, you’ve no doubt read versions of the fairy tales and folk stories they compiled. Born in modern-day Germany in 1785 and 1786, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were young boys when their father died. Their family struggled financially, but both brothers were able to study law at the University of Marburg. Jacob went to work as his professor’s library assistant, and he later became the royal librarian for the new King of Westphalia, Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte (that Napoleon's younger brother).

Wilhelm worked as his brother’s library assistant, and because Napoleon had recently conquered much of Germany, the two brothers wanted to help their fellow Germans preserve their culture’s stories. After gathering folk tales from books and committing oral stories to paper, the Brothers Grimm published collections of these stories, including Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin. Besides working together, Jacob also lived with Wilhelm and his wife, and Wilhelm named his first son Jacob. Before they died, the Brothers Grimm gave lectures and began work on a comprehensive German dictionary.

2. Louisa May and Abigail May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott
Culture Club/Getty Images

Louisa May Alcott is best known for her bestselling novel Little Women, which she based on her experience growing up with three sisters. But Louisa’s youngest sister—the inspiration for Amy March in Little Women—was an accomplished artist in her own right. Abigail (who went by May) had shown vast artistic promise as a child and young adult, even covering the walls and window frames in the family home with sketches of people and animals, and Louisa used a portion of her new-found fortune to further May's training.

After studying art in Boston, London, Rome, and Paris, May lived in France and earned spots for her still life and oil paintings in the Paris Salon’s exhibitions. The two sisters were so close that May named her baby daughter Louisa (nicknamed "Lulu"), and just before May died in 1879 (a month after childbirth), she told her husband to send baby Lulu to Louisa in Massachusetts. Louisa raised her niece until her own death eight years later, at which point Lulu went back to Europe to live with her father.

3. Wolfgang and Maria Mozart

Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, and Maria Anna Mozart.
Left to right: Leopold Mozart; his son, Wolfgang Amadeus; and his daughter, Maria Anna Mozart.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

We remember musical wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for his instantly recognizable symphonies and concertos, but his older sister paved the way for him to become one of history’s most famous classical composers. Born in 1751, five years before her brother, Maria Anna Mozart (nicknamed Nannerl) played piano to audiences across Europe before she hit her teens. Her technical skills earned her a reputation as a prodigy and one of the best pianists in Europe.

Nannerl and her younger brother also toured together, wowing audiences with their harpsichord performances. Nannerl wrote down (or possibly collaborated on) her brother’s first symphony, but her father made her stop performing once she turned 18. Still, Nannerl continued to compose music, and Mozart praised his sister’s work. Although some scholars dismiss Nannerl’s talent, others stress that her early interest (and success) in music deeply influenced and inspired her younger brother’s career.

4. Venus and Serena Williams

Venus and Serena Williams.
Venus and Serena Williams.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

There aren't many athletes more decorated than the Williams sisters. Serena currently holds tennis's Open Era record for the most Grand Slam singles titles (for a man or woman) with 23, while Venus has won seven on her own, and, in 2000, became the first African American woman to win a single's title at Wimbledon since 1957. The sisters both have four Olympic gold medals to their name, three of which they won together in doubles play.

The two were born just 15 months apart, with Venus being the oldest. Despite Serena's otherworldly success, she knows to respects her sister's seniority in doubles play.

"She’s definitely the boss out there," Serena joked during an interview with BBC. To which Venus added: "Well I’m the older sister, so it kind of falls on me."

5. Emily and Austin Dickinson

Emily Dickinson and her siblings.
Left to right: Emily, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson.
Culture Club/Getty Images

Emily Dickinson’s poetry, as well as her mysteriously reclusive later life, continues to enchant readers more than a century after her death. But most people aren’t as familiar with her brother, Austin. Born a year and a half before Emily, Austin graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School before working as an attorney. A prominent member of the Amherst community, Austin served as the treasurer of Amherst College, founded the town’s private cemetery, and held leadership roles in civic organizations.

Austin and his wife lived next door to Emily and had a close relationship with the poet—who never had anything published under her own name in her lifetime. After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia found the poems and was determined to get them published, ultimately enlisting Austin’s longtime mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who got her poetry shared with the world.

6. The Jackson Siblings

Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, Michael, and Marlon Jackson
Left to right: Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, Michael, and Marlon Jackson, with Randy up top.
William Milsom/Getty Images

From their home base in Gary, Indiana, Joe and Katherine Jackson raised nine children. In 1969, the five eldest brothers (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael) hit it big as the Jackson 5, delighting audiences with catchy hits such as "I Want You Back" and "ABC." Since then, the members of the Jackson family have continued to make music, both together and separately.

Although Michael and youngest sister Janet achieved the most success with their music careers, each one of the couple’s seven other children—including sisters Rebbie and La Toya, and youngest brother Randy—achieved musical success in their own right. In fact, all nine Jackson siblings have released solo songs that charted on Billboard charts.

7. William and Caroline Herschel

William Herschel.
William Herschel was appointed court astronomer by King George III.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Astronomer Sir William Herschel gets the credit for discovering, in March 1781, that Uranus was in fact a planet and not a star, as other astronomers had thought. Herschel also served as King George III’s official Court Astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and identified thousands of star clusters. But Herschel’s younger sister Caroline, born a dozen years after her brother, was also a seriously accomplished astronomer. As a young woman, she moved from her family’s home in Hanover to join her brother in England.

The two siblings shared a love of music and science, and Caroline worked as her brother’s assistant, providing technical support for the telescopes he built. She also was the first woman to be credited as the discoverer a comet (it’s called Comet C/1786 P1) and, after King George III began paying her, the first female scientist to ever be paid for her work. Caroline was awarded a Gold Medal from London’s Royal Astronomical Society and a Gold Medal for Science from Prussia’s King Frederick William IV.

8. The Wright Siblings

Wilbur Wright and his sister, Katherine.
A photo of Wilbur and Katherine Wright in 1909.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

We know that Wilbur and Orville Wright were the inventors of the first successful airplane. But Katharine, the Wright brothers’ youngest sibling, played a huge role in facilitating her brothers’ aviation success. After graduating from Oberlin, Katharine worked as a Latin teacher in Dayton, Ohio. Although she wasn’t an engineer, she frequently corresponded with her brothers when they were in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, testing airplane prototypes. The brothers bounced ideas off of her, and she gave them emotional support and encouragement when they worried that flight simply wasn’t possible. Katharine also helped run her brothers’ bicycle company, which provided the funds that the brothers used to finance their airplane experiments.

Additionally, Katharine played an integral role in publicizing the Wright Brothers’ success, encouraging them to give speeches and do public flight demonstrations. Katharine even learned French, so she could hobnob with European royalty and aristocracy, spreading the word of her brothers’ aeronautical achievement.

9. Harriet and Catharine Beecher

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Though most of the world knows Harriet Beecher Stowe, her sister, Catharine, made tremendous strides for women's education.
Culture Club/Getty Images

Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a landmark piece of work for the anti-slavery movement, but she also had 12 siblings, many of whom also worked tirelessly for causes like abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Catharine, the oldest sibling, was passionate about seeing young girls become educated, and she opened the Hartford Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1824. Working from textbooks she wrote herself, Catharine taught groups of young girls everything from philosophy and art to chemistry and algebra. During her life, she opened schools in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.

10. The Brontë Sisters

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte
Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Decades before J.R.R. Tolkien would create Middle-Earth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë wrote stories together in childhood that revolved around fantasy worlds with names like Angria and Gondal. After a brief separation when they reached young adulthood, the sisters eventually reunited in 1845, following the death of their aunt Elizabeth, and began writing together once again. The next year, they published a book of poems under pen names titled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Soon, each sister would write her own defining work: Charlotte published Jane Eyre in 1847, while Emily penned Wuthering Heights the same year, and in 1848, Anne Brontë published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

A Brief History of the Chain Letter

"If you can't participate in this chain letter you didn't ask for, let me know within five days so it will be fair to those participating!"
"If you can't participate in this chain letter you didn't ask for, let me know within five days so it will be fair to those participating!"
czarny_bez/iStock via Getty Images Plus

History can be maddeningly unspecific about certain things, particularly chronology. But when it comes to the history of the chain letter, it’s very possible that Jesus was the first to author one.

Hundreds of years ago, a story made the rounds that seemed incredible. Fifty-five years after Jesus had been resurrected and ascended into heaven, he decided to author a letter offering wisdom to his human charges. The note was taken to earth and hidden under a rock, which a young and earnest boy was able to lift. From there, the note was copied and circulated, each facsimile bearing a strange warning:

“He that copieth this letter shall be blessed of me. He that does not shall be cursed.”

As hoaxes go, it wasn’t a bad way to get someone’s attention. Copies of the letter survive from as early as the mid-1700s, proof that people have always had an innate curiosity—and superstition—about chain letters. In the decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of people have received and forwarded letters that promise charity, prosperity, or religious enlightenment.

The price for not being on board? Usually awful luck. Or death.

 

In 1888, a Methodist women’s missionary group was having serious cash flow problems. Additions to their facilities had added up to an astounding $16,000. While the group leaders prayed for assistance, they also acknowledged they might need to take the initiative.

Just when all hope seemed lost, a woman who had heard of their troubles said that she had a possible solution: Someone had told her that arranging for a chain letter could be a possible avenue to financial reward. Around the same time, the church received a chain letter requesting funds for another now forgotten object, sent to them by someone who thought it would work for this group as well. The head of the congregation, Lucy Rider Meyer, took the suggestions seriously and drafted a letter that contained both a solicitation to send her one dime and to send a copy of the letter to three friends, who would (hopefully) repeat the process.

Meyer dashed off 1500 copies and waited. The responses came pouring in. The missionaries eventually raised $6000, with many people sending more than a dime and others even using the letter as the inspiration to join their flock. In spirit and cold cash, the chain letter had been a success. Mostly.

While most recipients were happy to either contribute or disregard the letter, a few took the time to write back and complain about being targeted multiple times. One irritated addressee wrote:

"To tell the plain truth, I am exasperated with this plan. I am a very busy woman, and this is the third benevolence I have been asked to help in this way."

Others took a more direct way of holding on to their cash:

"I have figured up, and you must already have an abundance of money for the house. So I won’t send any."

The missionaries dubbed the chain letter a “peripatetic contribution box,” a kind of postal hat-passing that immediately began growing in popularity. Newspapers like the New York World printed forms to raise money for a memorial for Spanish-American war soldiers; in 1898, a 17-year-old volunteer for the Red Cross devised a chain that solicited money for ice to send to troops stationed in Cuba. So many thousands of letters poured in that they choked her Babylon, New York, post office, prompting her mother to issue an open plea to stop people from sending any more.

While potentially annoying to some, many of these letters were altruistic in nature—an attempt to drum up financial support for what was considered to be a worthy cause. But it didn’t take long for the template to be adapted to a less noble pursuit: conning people out of money.

At the height (or low point) of the Great Depression in 1935, the city of Denver became the epicenter of a massive chain letter campaign known as the Send-a-Dime effort. In a time of severe financial strife, recipients were urged to send along money to a list of names, with their own fortune coming when their turn arrived in the queue.

People in desperate need of hope began to rely on a promise of prosperity, populating chain letter brokerage firms that sold shares in names due to hit it big. The brokers made thousands; the letter writers made nothing. Western Union was sued for over $27 million for helping perpetuate the fraud, and the postal service threatened prosecution under anti-lottery and anti-solicitation statutes.

Although dime letters have since fallen by the wayside, chain letters were never totally stifled. In 1978, students at Harvard became fascinated by the “Circle of Gold” ploy sweeping the nation, where a letter could be purchased for $100 from some well-meaning seller. Fifty of those dollars would go to the person selling the letter, and the remaining $50 would be mailed to an address at the top of a list of names and addresses. The top name would be crossed out, the second place name moved up, and the buyer would attempt to sell two more letters. These were interesting marriages of chain letters as pyramid schemes, a theme that has often repeated itself.

Often, chain letters took delight in provoking a person’s superstitious nature, warning of severe consequences for not following the instructions. In some cases, there was a caution that not advancing the message would result in no change to the status quo. In others, it would be an outright warning of misfortune. These often contained testimonials that tried to personalize fate by detailing the name of a past recipient who either followed the instructions and prospered or didn’t follow the instructions and was immediately struck by a bus. For people who might otherwise be prone to tossing the letter, it helped ensure that the deliverer’s message (or scam) would be tended to properly.

 

In the 1990s, just before email replaced physical letters as the delivery method of choice for these pyramid scams and religious tracts, an unknown source perpetuated what became known as the “underpants exchange.” The letter read:

"Send one pair of pretty underwear of your choice to the person listed below, and send a copy of this letter to six friends…If you can't do this in seven days, please notify me because it isn't fair to those who have participated…You will receive 36 pairs of pretty panties!"

Despite whatever curious urge was gripping the originator, the pretty panties circulation thrived: The Baltimore Sun reported several satisfied enrollees who got mailed several pairs of underwear every week.

Chain letters still exist, primarily as social media threads that solicit money or gifts for lists of people in the hopes a person’s “turn” will eventually come. Aside from the occasional deluge of undergarments, it’s always a losing proposition. When Denver’s Send-a-Dime Depression scam came to an end, more than 100,000 “dead” letters were forwarded to the real winner: the U.S. Treasury, which took possession of $3000 in dimes.

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