THE ORIGIN OF MONEY CHAIN LETTERS
by Daniel W. VanArsdale
Copyright  June 21, 2014

Abstract

    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 suggestions.

 


Sections
1. The 1935 Send-a-Dime Craze  
2. The 1933 Hyatt Chain Letter  
3. Send-a-Dime Innovations  
4. Authorship of Send-a-Dime
5. The Launching of Send-a-Dime




1. The  1935 Send-a-Dime Craze


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".

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              Prosperity Club
                 In God we trust

Miss Jeanne Paris, 404-5th Street, Bismarck, N. Dak.
Miss Isabel Clark, Capital Commercial College, Bis
mark, No. Dak.

Mr. Jimmy Lies, Fessenden, No Dak.
Mr. Marvin O Miller, Fessenden, North Dakota
Miss Emma Keiper, Fessenden, North Dakota
Miss Caroline Billingmierer, Fessenden, North Dak.

             Hope--Faith--Charity. 

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]
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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. [1935-03] 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 Send-a-Dime craze.

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 copies. [1925-12]  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. [BB4BB5] 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. [BB7] 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. [BB8].

Two new motivational categories of chain letters branched off early from SD - the exchange chain letters [ARCX] and parodies [ARCJ]. 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. [1978]  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." [1936]

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 Department. [BB12,  Photo1] 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 1935. [ARCM]

Paper money chain letters still circulate in the US mail. A popular 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 that document the 1935 chain letter craze. Captions on the back of the pictures describe the activities depicted.
(1) Buyers for the $5 Springfield Pyramid scheme. Springfield, Missouri. May 8, 1935.  [Photo2]
(2) The Glendale "Dollar Scramble". Glendale, California, May 18. 1935.  [Photo3]
(3) The Golden Gate Chain Recirculating Club. San Francisco, California. May 28, 1935.  [Photo4]
(4) The St. Petersburg Chain Letter Club. St. Petersburg, Florida. July 12, 1935.  [Photo5]



2. The 1933 Hyatt chain letter.


In 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 for 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. [1933-11]

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We trust in God. He supplies our needs.

Mrs. F. Streuzel..., [omitted]... Mich.
Mrs. A.Ford........, Chicago .....Ill.
Mrs. K.Adkins......, Chicago .....Ill.
Mrs. R.Arlington..., [omitted]....Ill.
Mrs. [omitted]....., Quincy.......Ill.
Mrs. [omitted]....., Quincy.......Ill.
Copy the 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.
Mrs. Andres won $1,000.
Mrs. Howe who broke the chain lost everything she possessed.

The chain grows a definite power over the expected word.

DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN
See what happens on the 9th day.
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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, BB14] 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 addresses. [1933-04, 1939-03]  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. [1930-011930-02, 1931-10]

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. [1933]

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.  [1933-04]
The chain grows a definite power over the expected word.  [1933-11]
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.



3. Send-a-Dime Innovations

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.

First, comparing 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 this list.
°
 The promise of "prosperity" for compliance with the instructions.
° The request that five copies be distributed.
For convenience 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 and towns.
2. The deadline for distributing copies on SD is three days, but HL has a 24 hour deadline.
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.
4. SD gives the number of dimes that would be received if all downline recipients followed exactly the letter's instructions (15,625).
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."

The author 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.

Alternatively: perhaps 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."
7.  SD deleted the traditional veiled warning: "Do not break the chain."
8.  SD deleted the three testimonials that are on HL.
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.



4. 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.

(C) It 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 this effort.

(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". [1921-04] 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.

So 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.

In 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. 

"A 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 6/2015]  [EX2] 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 [1935-05u], 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.



5.  The 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 federal prosecution."   (Denver Post)

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 Post)


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.

We can 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.


April 20: "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 letters."  (Moberly Monitor-Index)     

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.

Another possibility 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 possibility. 

April 22: "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."   (Denver Post)

Nelson's guess 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.

April 28: "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.


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Revised Section 2, Aug. 1, 2016