THE ORIGIN OF
MONEY CHAIN LETTERS
by 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
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.
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
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".
In God we trust
Miss Jeanne Paris, 404-5th Street,
Bismarck, N. Dak.
Miss Isabel Clark, Capital Commercial College, Bismark,
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.
This chain was started in the hope of
bringing you prosperity. Within
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
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
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
(2015). Another common early variation is "This charm
was started ..." instead of "This chain was started ..."
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
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
Say John Doe fully complies with a money chain
that has a controlled list of n names and asks that q copies be
Then there will be q letters with "John Doe" at the bottom of
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.
full compliance will eventually result in q^n letters with "John
the top slot and hence conceivably John could receive that many
those letters are processed. Though it is all but impossible to
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. [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
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 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 five
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) Store selling the "Pot O' Gold" Pyramid scheme. Springfield,
May 10, 1935. [Photo
(3) The Glendale "Dollar Scramble". Glendale,
California, May 18. 1935. [Photo4]
(4) The Golden Gate Chain Recirculating Club. San Francisco,
California. May 28, 1935. [Photo55]
(5) The St. Petersburg Chain Letter Club. St. Petersburg,
Florida. July 12, 1935. [Photo6]
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]
We trust in God. He supplies our
Mrs. F. Streuzel...,
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. A.Ford........, Chicago .....Ill.
Mrs. K.Adkins......, Chicago .....Ill.
Mrs. R.Arlington..., [omitted]....Ill.
Mrs. [omitted]....., Quincy.......Ill.
Mrs. [omitted]....., Quincy.......Ill.
Mrs. Sanford won $3,000.
Mrs. Andres won $1,000.
Mrs. Howe who broke the chain lost everything she
The chain grows a definite power over
the expected word.
DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN
See what happens on the 9th day.
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
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
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
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. [1930-01,
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
In 1978 someone told me that a grandparent had
once mailed out a luck chain letter and was surprised when
amounts of money were received "from all over the
the time I did not know that luck chain letters previously had
senders, and this fact had disappeared from the family legend.
So I did not
take the story seriously. This could have been a surviving
the early 1930's of receiving charitable feedback from a
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
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,
and the desire to limit competition would have inhibited
the exponential process involved. Alternatively, any such
on the letter might generate broader participation and thus more
Here are several Affirmations from Prosperity letters in the
Let your good wishes go with this as you send
it out. Wish everybody good luck and it will return to you.
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.
The theory is to set up a definite and positive thought.
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
chain letters could reveal such activity by the appearance of
on the senders' lists. It would also be revealing if any pre-SD
had full street addresses. No letters intermediate between the
and Send-a-Dime have been found. The advent of SD in the spring
atrophied whatever money schemes were operating utilizing
letters. SD was where the smart action was - the Prosperity type
to pure superstition. All rational hope for money was banished
not send money" appeared in the late thirties and quickly
luck chain letter niche. The odd Affirmations disappeared at the
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
° 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
1. The controlled list on SD contains
senders' names and complete addresses. Those on HL are names and
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.
4. SD 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."
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
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
(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
(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
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]
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
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
"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]
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
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."
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."
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."
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.
email: Daniel W. VanArsdale
Chain Letter Evolution
Chain Letter Archive - Contents
Revised Section 2, Aug. 1, 2016