THE ORIGIN OF MONEY
Daniel W. VanArsdale
Copyright June 21, 2014
In 1935 a chain letter began
circulating in the American west
that within a year would sweep through
the world in a torrent of hundreds of millions
of copies. This was the infamous "Send-a-Dime"
(SD) letter. In Section 1 I give a prototypic
example of SD and highlights of the craze it
spawned. In Section 2 SD is compared to a 1933 luck
chain letter published by folklorist Henry Hyatt.
This reveals that SD was heavily influenced by
some version of the Hyatt letter. They both began
with a list of six names and the instructions
to remove the top name, place the reader's name
at the bottom, and distribute five copies. The six
names on the Hyatt letter were accompanied only by
their city and state, and there was no request to send
money. In spite of this, the Hyatt letter may have elicited donations
for some in the early 1930's.
By contrast, the names
on the SD list were accompanied
by a full address, and the reader was asked
to send a dime to the person whose
name was removed from the list. No such request
has been found that pre-dates SD, and this
procedure constitutes what we now call a "money
chain letter". Though modeled on the traditional
Hyatt letter, SD displays striking innovations.
These are listed in Section 3 and hypotheses
are offered to explain how these innovations contributed
to the phenomenal replication of the chain letter.
In Section 4 it is argued
that the SD innovations were the creation
of one person, an anonymous woman whom I
call Jane Doe, and that she was motivated by
charity and did not herself benefit financially
from her creation. Public awareness of the Send-a-Dime
craze started with an April 19, 1935 front
page story in the Denver Post. At that time,
Denver Post Office inspector Roy E. Nelson undertook
a dogged effort to determine who started the
craze. In the final section, details of Jane Doe's initial
distribution of SD are reconstructed based on Inspector
Nelson's statements to the press, and assuming
that Jane Doe told no one that she was the author
of SD. This launch was planned so that none of the early
beneficiaries were prosecuted, and no one discovered
who started the craze. To this day, the identity of Jane
Doe remains unknown.
I will often refer to the transcribed text of
chain letters. These are contained in the online "Paper
Chain Letter Archive" as separate html files and their
designations here use a date of circulation. There is an annotated table of contents for this archive,
and links to it here begin with "ARC...". An annotated
bibliography for paper chain letters is
frequently cited ("BB..."). A few terms are linked
to a glossary for chain letters. These auxiliary
sites were originated to support the online treatise
Chain Letter Evolution. This
article constitutes section 4.1 of that treatise, but may be read
independently of it.
Thanks to Daria Radchenko and David Pierce for many useful
1. The 1935 Send-a-Dime
2. The 1933 Hyatt Chain
3. Send-a-Dime Innovations
4. Authorship of Send-a-Dime
5. The Launching of
1. The 1935
In the spring of 1935 America had endured
five years of the Great Depression. Most
of the nation's elderly lived in poverty, and
enactment of the Social Security Act was
several months away. The national
unemployment rate was over 20%, and had
been for three consecutive years. Membership
in a radical populist movement called the "Share Our
Wealth Society" had swollen to over seven million citizens.
This was also the "dust bowl" era. Twenty
seven states were severely affected by the worst
drought in US history. Hundreds of thousands of
people were forced to leave their homes. April 14,
1935, was dubbed "Black Sunday" for a series of monster
dust storms, some so dense that visibility was reduced
to less than two meters in midday.
Amid this economic
and environmental disaster
a new kind of chain letter had appeared
that was silently spreading from
person to person and town to town.
Many had seen this letter, but no one knew that
a craze was taking place. Finally this became
known when post office officials in Denver
investigated an increase in the volume of
mail. On April 19, 1935, the Denver
Post headline read: "SEND-A-DIME
CHAIN LETTERS TRICK THOUSANDS IN DENVER". The
postmaster reported: "The thing is staggering in
its proportions. The whole city is talking
about it." [BB1] The first
money chain letter had manifested and it was destined to
spread throughout the world and be copied by
more people than any other document in human history.
I have chosen
the following text to be the prototype
of Send-a-Dime (SD). It is based on a typed
letter mailed to a woman in Heimdal, North
Dakota on May 12, 1935. The letter was
titled "Prosperity Club", but people would follow
the Denver Post headline
and call the new chain letter "Send-a-Dime".
In God we trust
Miss Jeanne Paris, 404-5th Street, Bismarck, N.
Miss Isabel Clark, Capital Commercial
Mr. Jimmy Lies, Fessenden, No Dak.
Mr. Marvin O Miller, Fessenden, North
Miss Emma Keiper, Fessenden, North
Miss Caroline Billingmierer, Fessenden,
This chain was started in the hope of bringing
you prosperity. Within three days make
five copies of this letter leaving off the top name and address and adding
your own name and address at the bottom and mail to five of your friends
to whom you wish prosperity to come.
Im omitting the top name, send that person ten
cents as a charity donation. In turn when
your name reaches the top of the list
you will receive 15,625 letters with donations
amounting to $1,562.50.
Is this worth ten cents to you?
Have the faith your friends had and
this chain will not
be broken. [1935-05]
The earliest text we have of SD was in the April
19 Denver Post
article, but the first mailing was
estimated to have been three or four
weeks earlier [BB2]. Thus some guesswork is necessary in choosing a prototype. Many early examples do not have the two line title above
the list, but probably this resulted from
accidental deletion when the list
was revised. Many cities had an organization called "Prosperity
Club" going back into the 1920's. These did not seem to have a national
charter, and their activities varied from city to city. Many sponsored
dances. There is some published text of a Prosperity Club chain letter
circulating in March, 1935 that advocated spending to counter the depression.
This could have influenced the title appearing on Send-a-Dime, but there
is no evidence that a Prosperity Club had any role in initiating the
Most copies of SD in the Paper Chain
Letter Archive contain an instruction to
wrap the dime in paper. I presume this was an
early addition since there would be no motivation to remove it if it were present from the
start. A loose coin can work through
the edge of an envelope with the jostling of transport,
or be slung out deliberately. Wrapping it
in paper prevents this. Many
early SD letters boosted the "ante" that was to be sent
to the person removed from the list to 25 cents, a dollar,
and more. [1935-05]
Inflation adjusted, ten cents in 1935 is
worth about $1.75 today (2015). Another common early variation is "This
charm was started ..." instead of "This chain
was started ..." [scan1, text1]
Here "chain" was likely original
since SD studiously avoids attributing any
result to luck or magic, and "chain"
appears on the Hyatt letter. Thus "charm"
was likely a miscopy of "chain" that became established.
A postscript that is often seen was a request to
return the letter to the sender if the reader
did not wish to participate in the scheme. Within weeks
of the launch of SD, printed forms appeared with slots for senders'
names and addresses to be written in. [scan2, text2]
A "money chain letter" requests the reader send
money to one or more prior senders,
claiming that one may likewise benefit
if copies of the letter are distributed. The
backbone of SD, and any money chain letter, is
its list of names and addresses. Lists of prior
senders first appeared on US chain letters with the 1922
"Good Luck" type letter.
The entries were names only, often in the form "X to
Y", "Y to Z", etc. [1922-06] Names
were added to these lists without
any restraint, and some lists developed
for years and attained monstrous lengths. One
was reported to have 214 different names - presenting
a great challenge to making the asked for nine
Beginning with the "Prosperity" type letters in 1932,
which we will describe
in the next section, "controlled" lists
appeared which instructed the reader to
(1) remove the top name, (2) move each remaining
name up one slot, and (3) add the reader's name
to the bottom. [1932-03]
If senders obeyed these instructions, the
number of entries in a controlled list
would never change. But we see chain letters on
which this number has grown [1939-03],
probably because some senders neglected to delete
the top name. But for the
overwhelming majority of SD examples in our archive
the number of names and addresses on the
list remained fixed at six. Someone, considerate of
downline recipients, may have initially introduced a controlled list to lessen
the effort required to copy a chain letter. Whatever the motive, understandably
Prosperity letters with the resulting shorter list soon replaced those on
which the uncontrolled list had grown long.
Say John Doe fully complies with a money chain letter that
has a controlled list of n names and asks that q copies be distributed. Then
there will be q letters with "John Doe" at the bottom of the list. If every
recipient of these letters also complies there will be q x q (written q^2)
letters with "John Doe" in the second slot from the bottom. Continued full
compliance will eventually result in q^n letters with "John Doe" in the top
slot and hence conceivably John could receive that many antes when those
letters are processed. Though it is all but impossible to have such total
compliance, q^n antes is touted by most money chain letters and pyramid schemes
as an attainable return. For SD, q^n = 5^6 = 15,625.
Despite repeated threats of prosecuting senders,
a headline on
the Monday, April 29, 1935 Denver Post
reads: "Chain Letters Triple Denver Mail",
and "Carriers stagger under 350,000 pieces." [BB3]
Blank chain letters were sold door to door
in residential areas and by hawkers
on street corners. [BB4,
BB5] In Kingsport, Tennessee three movie theaters gave
away free Send-a-Dime forms at showings. [BB6] Restaurant owner
A. A. McVittie returned to Denver
from two days out of town to
find 2,363 chain letters awaiting him.
The craze rapidly spread to other cities - on
May 8 the "chain letter splurge"
had increased the St. Louis daily mail
average from 450,000 to 800,000 letters.
Two new motivational categories of chain letters branched
from SD - the exchange chain letters [ARCX] and parodies
More relevant to our topic, various schemes developed
attempting to avoid postal regulations and counter
cheating with SD. Thus distribution
of the text defining the scheme was required
to be person-to-person, and the supplier would
supervise mailing the ante and preparation of
the revised list. [1935-05-09, 1935-05-10]
Chain letter "factories" appeared that supplied
cheap printed forms of the latest chain
letter, and often the services of typists
and notaries. Dense crowds of men in hats mobbed
makeshift establishments to get in early on
the latest scheme. [BB9, 1935-05]
Person to person distribution of
the chain letter enabled an important new innovation:
letters were sold to new participants
for the same price as the ante. It may seem that few would choose to pay for
a chain letter when there were abundant opportunities
to get in on an active letter for free. But the
buyer of one hoped to soon be a seller of two. On May
8, 1935, in Springfield, Missouri, the first known "pyramid
scheme" worked this way: (1) person B buys a letter
from seller A for $5, (2) seller A witnesses B send $5
to the person whose name is at the top of a list of 12 people,
and (3) makes sure that person B makes 2 copies of the letter
with a correctly updated list, then (4) B attempts to sell the
2 copies for $5 each. The appeal of this scheme is that if B sells
his two copies, he has completely recouped his initial investment
of $10 and anything he gets by his name working to the top of
the list is pure profit. I call this a "Springfield" pyramid scheme. [BB10]
Many subsequent pyramid schemes have
had this structure - for example, the
well known "Circle of Gold" which originated
in California in 1978. It had a list
of 12 names, an ante of $50 and a copy quota
of two. 
But more complex schemes appeared
- for example, the bizarre "1936 Square
Deal Automobile Club" in Pittsburgh which promised
the price of new car for $5, and in which
membership was "reserved for the Caucasian race."
On May 17, 1935, Post Office officials in Washington DC
announced that the "send-a-dime
letter fad was on the wane." [BB11]. On Aug. 15 of that year, Denver Postmaster J.
O. Stevic revealed that there were 100,000 SD letters in their
Dead Letter Office. They contained over $3,000 in dimes, quarters
and dollar bills, this to be turned over to the United States Treasury
Send-a-Dime was a creature
of 1935. All 34 SD letters
in The Paper Chain Letter Archive which have
a postmarked envelope were mailed in May of
Paper money chain letters still circulate in the US mail.
recent example, usually titled "AS SEEN
ON OPRAH AND 20/20", is five pages long,
features surprisingly traditional testimonials,
and recommends sending out hundreds of
copies. This is primarily a vehicle to promote the
sale of mailing lists. [2009-02]
All money chain letters and pyramid schemes are illegal in the US, whether
they use the mails or not.
We conclude this section with links to four newspaper photographs
the 1935 chain letter craze. Captions
on the back of the pictures describe the activities
Buyers for the $5 Springfield Pyramid
scheme. Springfield, Missouri. May 8,
The Glendale "Dollar Scramble". Glendale,
California, May 18. 1935. [Photo3]
The Golden Gate Chain Recirculating
Club. San Francisco, California. May
28, 1935. [Photo4]
The St. Petersburg Chain Letter Club.
St. Petersburg, Florida. July 12, 1935.
2. The 1933 Hyatt chain
1933 a folklorist collected a luck chain
letter in Illinois and published it two years later.
This "Hyatt letter" (HL) reveals that
Send-a-Dime, though highly innovative, copied
basic features from some letter close to HL.
The key shared feature of HL and SD is a "controlled
list", which asks that an entry be removed at the
top when one is put in at the bottom. But whereas the entries
on the SD list were names and addresses, on HL they were
names and towns.
Below is the text, "exactly as written" (except
the four omissions in the list) of HL as
published by Harry M. Hyatt in Folk-lore
from Adams County, Illinois in 1935.
He states it was part of a "chain letter
fad" that appeared in the latter part of 1933.
trust in God. He supplies
Mrs. F. Streuzel..., [omitted]... Mich.
above names, omitting the
first. Add your name last.
Mail it to
five persons who you wish prosperity
to. The chain was started
by an American Colonel and must
be mailed 24 hours after receiving it.
This will bring prosperity within
9 days after mailing it.
Mrs. Sanford won $3,000.
Andres won $1,000.
Howe who broke the chain
lost everything she possessed.
The chain grows a definite power over the expected
DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN
what happens on the 9th
This letter is prototypical of the "Prosperity" type which
dominated circulation of luck chain letters
in the US from 1932 to around
1938. [ACRL] Like
the prior "Flanders"
type, most Prosperity letters asked that five copies be distributed
within 24 hours and warned against breaking the chain.
But whereas the 1920's Flanders letters had promised
"good luck" for compliance, the 1930's depression era
chain letters promised "prosperity". Most of these also
bore a title much like the title on HL above. And most important,
usually a controlled list of prior senders appeared below
the title. A quota nine 1932 letter, transitional to the Hyatt version, is the earliest example I
have found anywhere of a controlled list,
though in this case the contents of the list were
not reported - a common problem with newspaper transcriptions.
There are claims on the World Wide
Web that an exponential process based on a controlled list such as
found on SD was previously employed in London in the 1890's
by "The Self-Help Mutual Advance Society". These
claims are false. [BB13,
Extensive searches of online
newspaper archives and other sources
have yet to reveal a controlled list prior
to the 1930's. However all my searches have been
in the English language, and even in English the
choice of search words is not obvious.
In the above chain letter, the sentence "The
chain grows a definite power over the expected word"
is a type of statement, called an "Affirmation", which
often appears in luck chain letters from around 1926
to 1940. Affirmations function as a comment by one supposedly
knowledgeable about the history of the chain letter, and
usually confirm or explain its claims of good fortune. Often
affirmations are highly corrupted by miscopying and thus may no
longer be comprehensible.
The controlled list on HL, and probably most other Prosperity
type letters, consisted of names, towns and states, but NOT full street
Prosperity letters were also
the first in the US to bear testimonials
about winning or losing money. This feature also
appears on prior French chain letters from
1928 [F1928]. Possibly
a translated French letter was the source for
many of the new features on Prosperity chain letters.
Other translated French language chain letters
circulated in the US at about the same time, possibly coming
from Quebec. [1930-01,
I think it is likely that widespread replication of standard
Prosperity chain letters with controlled
lists of names and towns resulted in
donations being sent to mailable addresses
on the list, especially to the name at the top.
Back then, if you lived in a small
town it was common practice to use just your
name and town as a mailing address. Of the first 15 envelopes with distinct addresses
among the 1935 money chain letters in the Paper
Chain Letter Archive, eight are addressed in this
manner. [ARCM] But
since there is no request to send money
in HL, why would recipients of this luck chain
letter send money to anyone on the list? Some
readers might have interpreted the letter's title, "We
trust in God. He supplies our needs", to
mean that the people on the list were receiving charity,
perhaps through a church, or perhaps from readers
of the letter. Thus in response to the great needs of the
time, some may have thought the letter was a charitable
appeal and sent a donation. Partial literacy
may have been a factor in this. Charity
chain letters had circulated since the 1880's
that asked recipients to send a dime to an address on
the letter. The omission on standard Prosperity
letters of the usual suggestion on luck chain letters to dispatch
copies on a tour around the world also hints at pecuniary motivation,
since any letter sent abroad had little chance of eliciting a donation.
In 1978 someone told me that a grandparent had once mailed
out a luck chain letter and was surprised when subsequently varying amounts
of money were received "from all over the country". At the time
I did not know that luck chain letters previously had lists of senders,
and this fact had disappeared from the family legend. So I did not take the
story seriously. This could have been a surviving account from the early
1930's of receiving charitable feedback from a Prosperity luck chain letter
with a name and town controlled list. Nothing like money chain
letters existed then, so getting letters with money in them could have been
totally unexpected, or possibly regarded as an answer to a prayer.
But what was the original motivation to add one's town
and state to the names in a list of prior senders? This could have been
just a matter of imitating some initial behavior, as happened with
adding a date of receipt on a 1982 luck chain letter.
Or it could have originated when a chain letter was intended to "go around
the world". Several such geographical locations could strongly imply that
a letter had completed such a circuit. The earliest known controlled list
with recipient's town was on a transitional form of the Prosperity type
that retained a circumnavigation request. 
If someone were intentionally mailing Prosperity chain
letters to receive cash donations, they may have modified the letter
to increase their take. But superstitious beliefs, legal concerns, and
the desire to limit competition would have inhibited disclosing the exponential
process involved. Alternatively, any such disclosure on the letter
might generate broader participation and thus more donations. Here are
several Affirmations from Prosperity letters in the archive.
Let your good wishes go with this as you send it out.
Wish everybody good luck and it will return to you. [1932-07]
The theory is that this gets up a definite
and possessive radio. [1932-12]
The theory is that this arouses a
definite medium. The power of words cannot be denied. [1933-04]
The theory is to set up a definite and positive thought.
The chain grows a definite power over the expected word.
This chain has a definite force
to all who repeat these words. [1934-04]
The first example comes closest to revealing the process.
Subsequent examples may be corruptions of added
text that sought to promote faithful participation, but not clear understanding.
Note also that, generally, innovations in a chain
letter that increase circulation could arise from a multitude of offhand
remarks and even copying errors, rather than from calculated human invention.
Suppose around 1932 some people were repeatedly mailing
out Prosperity chain letters for money. The requisite knowledge to do
this could have spread within families, or possibly within a criminal organization.
A large collection of Prosperity chain letters
could reveal such activity by the appearance of restarts on the senders'
lists. It would also be revealing if any pre-SD letters had full street
addresses. No letters intermediate between the Hyatt letter and Send-a-Dime
have been found. The advent of SD in the spring of 1935 atrophied whatever
money schemes were operating utilizing Prosperity chain letters. SD was
where the smart action was - the Prosperity type reverted to pure superstition.
All rational hope for money was banished when "do not send money"
appeared in the late thirties and quickly captured the luck chain letter
niche. The odd Affirmations disappeared at the same time.
In this section
I interpret the prototypic
SD given in Section 1 as a modification of
HL in order to identify what was added, changed
or deleted. It turns out that all these modifications
can be can be understood as motivated by one
of the following three goals.
A. To provide the instructions
for operating the money scheme.
B. To motivate participation
in that scheme
C. To avoid any promise
of good luck or warning of bad luck.
For many of these changes
I hypothesize why it may have contributed to the
massive proliferation of SD in
1935. To simplify the discussion
here, I assume that SD had a single author.
The possibility that the chain letter developed
gradually, or that a group of people composed it,
is dealt with in the next section.
SD to HL shows
that SD retained these features from
the prior luck chain letter.
° A declaration of
"trust in God" in the title.
A leading controlled list with six
entries, and instructions to process
° The promise of "prosperity"
for compliance with the instructions.
° The request that five copies be
we have assumed here that the author
of SD used the exact text of HL in composing
SD, but the actual letter used may have had a few differences.
For example, the words "Prosperity
Club" do not appear on HL, but may have appeared
on the letter SD copied from. There is a 1934 example
from Canada with this title, and "Prosperity Circle" appears
on other examples. [1932-12]
Thus the entire
title on SD may have been copied from an existing
Prosperity letter. The modifications made
on SD classify as follows as to likely motive.
A. The following changes
and additions were used to describe
the money scheme.
1. The controlled
list on SD contains senders' names
and complete addresses. Those on HL are names
2. The deadline for distributing copies
on SD is three days, but HL has a 24 hour
3. SD instructs
the reader to send ten cents
to the name that is removed from
the list when it is processed. HL does not ask that money be sent.
By having full
addresses in the list instead of just
a town, anyone with an address could
participate in the money scheme. SD is the first known chain letter
to contain senders' names and full street addresses.
The deadline to distribute copies
was extended from one day to
three days to allow more time for a sender to
select willing recipients. Getting
advance confirmation from friends that they
would replicate the letter was a significant
feature early in the Send-a-Dime craze. [BB15] The instruction
to send a dime to the person whose name was
removed in processing the list avoided
confusion about who to send the dime to, and justified the
payment by framing it as a compensation for that removal.
B. The following
additions encouraged readers
to participate in the money scheme.
gives the number of dimes that
would be received if all downline
recipients followed exactly the letter's
5. SD concludes
with "Now is this worth a dime to
you? Have the faith your friend had and
the chain will not be broken."
of SD does not attempt to explain
how the chain letter works. This
would be especially difficult in a medium
which gets corrupted rapidly by copying
errors. Instead, the author gives the reader
just one number, 5^6 = 15,625, and implicitly
challenges the reader to verify this number,
and by that exercise, understand how the controlled
list of names and addresses works. Millions of
people took up the challenge and thereby understood
the exponential growth involved. But numbers
are very subject to copying errors on chain letters
since they do not have a context that helps a copier
guess their correct value if they are hard to
read. To protect this important number, the author gives
the dollar value of 15,625 dimes, namely $1,562.50.
At first it may seem insulting that the author would
presume to make this simple calculation for us. But
this provides redundancy that protects the key number
15,625 from corruption. And it worked - all but
one of the over 30 examples of the SD letter I have collected
correctly give the number 15,625. The conclusion of SD urges the potential recruit to join
in a fellowship of faith - just as pyramid schemers and multi-level
marketers have done ever since.
only a minority of readers
understood the significance of 15,625.
The letter said it was a count of letters
to come, but more noticeable, $1,562.50 was
a promise of money to come. Perhaps some thought
this was a prize offered by the "Prosperity
Club" if your name worked to the
top of the letter. Or was it a bounty bestowed on
the faithful by God? Or was it a lottery prize
that you had a chance to win for ten cents? After all,
the Post Office had declared the scheme was a lottery.
Remember, no one had seen a money chain letter
before. They had seen luck chain letters,
but this did not appear like one. This was something else
- probably many thought it was legitimate since a trusted
friend had sent it to them. If you think it unlikely that
many would not understand the SD letter, just look at
the errors in the descriptions of it in the press. You
might start with the New York Times, which on
April 20, 1935, reported: "The chain plan calls for the recipient of a letter
to write a letter to each of five persons whose names appear
at the top of the letter."
Though stating just the
number 15,625 to explain how the
scheme worked was impressive, the author
may have made an error if this was
worded as "you will receive ... donations
amounting to $1,562.50" as in the prototype
letter used here. Denver Post Office Inspector
Roy Nelson said this constituted fraud. [BB16] It is
absurd to think that anyone could even get close
to total compliance with SD. Some early versions
of SD used "may" instead of "will"
in this promise; others add the accurate proviso "if
the chain is not broken". For actual prosecutions
lottery statutes were often used. Participants
who obeyed the rules in a dime chain letter in 1935
were not prosecuted.
C. The following deletions
from HL left SD with no promises of good
luck or warnings of bad luck.
6. SD deleted the
sentence "This will bring prosperity
within 9 days after mailing it."
deleted the traditional veiled warning:
"Do not break the chain."
deleted the three testimonials that are
It was a bold
decision of the author of SD to reject
using any promise of good luck - a defining
characteristic of luck chain letters. Instead
the promise was money, and it was to come by
purely rational means. If SD had retained
the usual threat of bad luck for "breaking the chain",
this could have easily evolved into the appearance, and perhaps
the reality, of extortion, since money is asked for in the
same letter. The extreme rarity in the US of a money chain letter
that contains threats or accounts of ill fortune suggests that
the postal inspectors suppress this toxic combination. [1936u] SD
also avoided testimonials. The names and amounts
of money mentioned in chain letter testimonials
are rapidly corrupted, and the ensuing contradictions
between letters alert the public to ludicrous
inconsistencies. We may also presume that the author of
SD wished to avoid false statements as a matter
of principle. SD does not state a single word
about its author, in contrast to all luck chain letters
before and after. Gone is the "American colonel" - the
traditional author of the prior Prosperity letters.
Authorship of Send-a-Dime
I will argue here that:
(A) all the innovations on Send-a-Dime first
appeared on one chain letter, (B) in the spring of 1935, (C) and were the creation of one
person, (D) a woman, (E) who was motivated
by charity, and (F) did not profit
from the chain letter herself. I also evaluate a published
account from July, 1935, that claims to describe an
early incident involving the author of SD.
(A) None of the five additions or changes
on SD listed above appear on a prior chain letter,
nor is there any Prosperity letter that has more
than one of the three above listed deletions. Numerous
searches were made in online newspaper archives for text
matches prior to April 19, 1935, but no intermediate letter
between HL and SD has been found.
(B) The launch day of SD was estimated
to be "three or four weeks ago"
in an April 20, 1935 Denver Post
article. Thorough searches have been made in newspaper
archives for "15,625", "$1,562.50", "Prosperity
Club" and "chain letter", but no chain letter like SD,
nor mention of such, has been found prior to April 19.
And no money chain letters have been collected
that are datable prior to May 4, 1935. [ARCM] All this argues
for a March or April, 1935 launch date for SD.
seems likely that there was just a single individual
who, prior to April 1935, (1) completely understood
how a controlled list with full street addresses could
bring a large number of "donations", and (2) resolved to
produce and distribute a chain letter that explained and
promoted that process by rational means only. This person
would not have needed any help to complete this task. In April
1935 such a letter appeared, the so-called Send-a-Dime chain
letter. Despite intensive early investigation its source
was never discovered, and no one since has claimed its authorship
[BB17]. This suggests that
the source of Send-a-Dime was a single individual who placed
a high value on anonymity and thus did not involve others in
(D) That a woman
launched SD is heavily supported
by reports in the Denver
Post, despite casual attribution
to a man. [BB18]
In the early phase of the fad women
predominated. The first 12 claims
of receiving money in the Denver Post
were by women. [BB19]
On April 20, 1935 the Denver Rocky Mountain
News reported: Send-a-Dime " ... is an animated topic
of discussion at bridge parties and wherever women gather." [BB20]
All nine names on HL are of married women, and women
had dominated charity chain letters
for decades. Chain letters with a list of
senders on them had become gender specific in
the 1920's because a married
woman would not send out a letter
whose list showed she had received it from
a man not her husband. Some post-war Ancient Prayer
type letters stated: "Send it to seven married ladies".
The author of SD knew much about the chain letters
that women circulated among themselves.
(E) Much evidence suggests that
SD started as a charitable effort.
Most early examples of SD were subtitled
"Faith, Hope, Charity". The dimes to
be sent were called "charity donations". In
the earliest reports about people getting money from SD the
beneficiaries were always poor women. [BB21]
(F) For the author of SD to get money from her chain
letter she would have had to make public either (1) her
own mailing address, (2) that of a trusted relative or confederate,
or (3) the address of a forwarding service.
But in each case it would have been easy for Inspector
Nelson to track the source down. He probably had very
early examples of Send-a-Dime, since newspapers often recommended
that recipients of any chain letter turn it over to the
local postmaster. [BB22]
Details about the launch of
SD will be discussed in the next section.
I have made a case for each claim I
put forth at the beginning of this section
using only chain letters from the archive and newspaper articles from
the time. I will call the
supposed woman who wrote and launched SD
Jane Doe, and will have more to say about
her. Though the Send-a-Dime craze was
first reported from Denver, it is not known for sure where
the first SD letters were mailed.
1995 an Alaskan newspaper [BB23] reported
that Send-a-Dime was launched
in April of 1935 when "members
of Denver's Prosperity Club reportedly organized
a mailing of 165,000 letters, and
the notion took off nation-wide." But surely
Inspector Nelson, or a reporter for the Denver
Post, would have found out about such
a massive effort. Yet there is no mention of this,
or even the existence of a "Denver Prosperity Club",
in newspaper databases. But the exact number "165,000"
does appear in the Denver Post as an estimate
of the number of chain letters handled by the Post Office
on a single Saturday, over a month after the launch
of Send-a-Dime. [BB24]
An article titled "Chain Letter Madness" in the July 20, 1935, issue of Liberty
Magazine, a long
defunct general interest weekly, claimed
that the author of SD revealed her plan to an attorney
in order to determine its legal status.
Denver attorney told the writer
a tale that seems likely. One
day early in April a woman client
came to his office. She was deeply
distressed over the plight of several families
she had known for years. These people
had been forced to go on relief through no fault
of their own and at a considerable cost of pride.
She had worried and pondered. The result
was a plan to help these families and possibly
many more in similar circumstances. She proposed
sending out dime chain letters to her friends,
listing the families' names. Did the lawyer
consider the plan illegal? He told her he could see
no harm in thus soliciting charity donations - and
so perhaps the snowball was started." [BB25]
The author of this article was given as "Donald
Furthman Wickets". Recently
a Google search revealed that this was a pen name
used by the well known German-American
author and Nazi apologist George Sylvester Viereck,
who served five years in prison
for withholding information when he registered
as a German agent. [EX1 - encrypted
Viereck interviewed Hitler twice, the first time in
1923. He seems to have had a special
interest in chain letters, and may have collected
them. His account matches all the conclusions above about
the origin of SD, but it should be questioned. In the same
article he discusses an early chain letter [1902u] advocating
sabbath observance. I have
neither collected such a letter nor found any mention
of it in newspaper archives. A Send-a-Dime example he
gives in Chain Letter Madness is heavily rewritten
and he pushes the launch of SD too far forward
and implied the beneficiaries' names were all on one
letter. Perhaps Viereck heard a rumor about Jane Doe, expanded on it, and
put it in the mouth of a fictional lawyer to make it
fit for publication. If so, the rumor could have some
evidential value - perhaps it was started
by Post Office officials, or perhaps
by Jane Doe herself.
Launch of Send-a-Dime.
The instructions for the Send-a-Dime
letter (and for every money chain letter or pyramid scheme) presume
that all the slots in the list of names and addresses are already
occupied. But the list had to be initialized by some unspoken method.
I attempt here to reconstruct this method
for the first Send-a-Dime chain, and how it was put into
circulation weeks before the April 19,
1935 Denver Post headline that made
public its burdensome multiplication. The words below that headline were:
"ORIGINATORS OF RACKET ARE SOUGHT". Denver Post Office Inspector Roy E. Nelson
was assigned to the case. By an undisclosed
method, he may have obtained a letter sent out
by one of Jane Doe's direct beneficiaries. I provide
five dated quotes from him below. The year is always 1935.
April 19: "We intend to trace down the
individuals responsible for starting
the craze, and when we have the necessary
evidence we'll arrest them for
April 20: "He said
he believed he had a way to trace
the letters to their original source,
and if he did so, he would prosecute
with all vigor." (Denver
I have claimed
that an anonymous woman, whom I
call Jane Doe, was the sole author of
the SD chain letter, and that she was motivated
by charitable purposes and sought
no gain for herself. What
precautions did Jane take to make it difficult
to trace a sequence of letters back to her, or
to one of her beneficiaries? In
particular, what did the lists of names look
like on the letters she first distributed?
The likely answer to this
question is simple - it was a list of six
"fictitious persons" (FPs). This follows
directly if Jane Doe kept her authorship and distribution of
SD a secret, as it has in fact so remained for eighty years.
This would require that she not put her own name on SD, nor the name
of another, unless she did so without their knowledge. But that seems
very unlikely since it might expose this person to the investigative
scrutiny, and other possible harms, that Jane Doe so carefully protected
herself from. Nor was there any charitable reason to do this, since
an intended beneficiary could be sent a letter with all FP's on the
list and then make the decision herself if she wanted to participate.
guess at further details of the launch
of SD. Jane would anonymously
mail one copy of SD, with its
list of FPs, to each of her selected beneficiaries.
These lists should all be the same, both
in the FPs present and their order. Recipients
would naturally presume that
the FP on the bottom of the list had sent
the chain letter to them, so this was likely
a local fake address. The remaining
five FPs at the top of the list may have been given
distant fake addresses, out-of-state, to slow down
the investigation in case Post Office Inspectors
were trying to contact all names on the list.
Thus we have reasoned that
Jane Doe's initial mailings had
a list of six fictitious persons. Note
that Jane was not restricted to any particular number
of beneficiaries, though too many might
provoke attention. And note that no
beneficiary is favored over any other as to
expected returns. They all receive the same chain
letter, list and all. As for dimes being sent
to the phantom addresses, if the sender had used
a return address these dimes would be returned. If
not, the United States Treasury Department would get the
dimes from the resulting dead letters - a well earned cut
as it turned out.
"Nelson said actual
fraud in the scheme is not readily apparent
but it is possible that whoever started
the chain may have placed a number of fictitious
names in the list, so one person could receive
the major portion of the first money brought in by the
Note that Nelson
uses "fictitious name" for
what I call, conveniently, a "fictitious
person". This statement may reveal that Inspector
Nelson had actually obtained a very
early SD with a list containing five FPs
followed by one valid address at the bottom, say
of Mrs. B. Then presumably Mrs. B distributed
the letter that Nelson had, and may well have been
one of Jane Doe's direct beneficiaries. For it would
be extremely unlikely that five undeliverable
addresses in a row would appear on a SD list by
chance, especially early in the craze when more
letters were going to friends. Thus my deduction
above that Jane Doe sent her beneficiaries
a SD letter with its list totally populated by FPs
is supported by Nelson's statement. Further,
his statement comes close to clearing Mrs. B of any
wrong doing, demonstrating that Jane Doe had adequately
protected her destitute friends from legal harassment
even if they were suspected of being cronies of
the much sought "originator".
Now consider Nelson's speculation that
this leading block of five FPs was a
strategy to increase the gain of Mrs.
B. She would have gotten
the exact same number of dimes whether
the names ahead of her on the list were real or not.
For in any case, it is only the people whose names
appear below hers that may send out letters
with her name on them, or send her a dime if her name had
worked to the top of the list. Thus Nelson's
explanation of the fictitious names is not valid, and instead
the above explanation that they were space fillers from
the originator of SD is more likely.
is that in saying "whoever started the chain may have
placed a number of fictitious names in the list, so one
person could receive the major portion of the first money
brought in by the letter", Inspector Nelson meant that only
the names were fictitious but the accompanying addresses were
valid. Then a letter with a dime would be delivered to such an
address and possibly obtained by the originator of Send-a-Dime.
This seems unlikely to have actually happened because the originator
could then have been determined, and also because Nelson said fraud
was "not readily apparent." So even if Nelson did intend this, apparently
he had no evidence to support it and was just speculating on a criminal
"A number of people have reported
that postal inspectors have been
working in their neighborhoods,
and have given assurance that the letters
are legal. That isn't true. I'm the only
postal inspector working on the case and I
have made only three contacts. Apparently
some persons are posing as inspectors, they are probably
agents of the originators trying to give
a stimulus to the circulation of the letters."
at the motives of these posers
is very unlikely - for one, the SD
letter itself provided more "stimulus
to circulation" than was bearable. There
were rumors about "large sums of money" being received,
this by illegal means. [BB26] Such stories can attract thieves and extortionists.
Perhaps the posers
were trying to track down the SD originator
just as Nelson was.
"Post office inspectors said they
would like to wring the neck of whoever
started the chain-letter scheme of wealth for
everybody." (Denver Post)
This statement, made over a
month after the launch of SD, suggests that
sustained anonymity was a wise choice for Jane
Doe. In all the years since the great Send-a-Dime craze
of 1935 her identity has remained a mystery. She created
one of the great nuisances of human history, but she
did it with remarkable skill and foresight.
Chain Letter Evolution
Chain Letter Archive - Contents
Revised Section 2, Aug. 1, 2016