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.