Top portion of a "Letter from Heaven," produced in England. Date uncertain. Text is nearly identical to one printed around 1795.


Daniel W. VanArsdale
©1998, 2002, 2007, 2014, 2016
2.92 MB

Apocryphal letters claiming divine origin circulated for centuries in Europe. After 1900, shorter more secular letters appeared in the US that promised good luck if copies were distributed and bad luck if not. Billions of these "luck chain letters" circulated in the the next 100 years. As they replicated through the decades, some accumulated copying errors, offhand comments, and calculated innovations that helped them prevail in the competition with other chain letters. For example, complementary testimonials developed, one exploiting perceived good luck, another exploiting perceived bad luck. Twelve successive types of paper luck chain letters are identified which predominated US circulation at some time in the twentieth century. These types, and their major variations, are described and analyzed for their replicative advantage.
In the 1970's a luck chain letter from South  America that touted a lottery winner invaded the US and was combined on one page with an indigenous chain letter. This combination rapidly dominated circulation. In 1979 a postscript concluding with "It Works" was added to one of these combination letters, and within a few years the progeny of this single letter had replaced all the millions of similar letters in circulation without this postscript. These and other events in paper chain letter history are described, and hypotheses are offered to explain advances and declines in circulation, including the near extinction of luck chain letters in the new millennium.

Perhaps the most dramatic event in chain letter history was the advent of money chain letters. This was spawned by the infamous "Send-a-Dime" chain letter which flooded the world in 1935. The insight and methods of its anonymous author, likely a woman motivated by charity, are examined in detail in a separate article titled "The Origin of Money Chain Letters." This constitutes Section 4.1 below, where its link is repeated. It can be read independently from this treatise.  

The online Paper Chain Letter Archive contains the text and documentation of over 900 chain letters. Most of these texts have been transcribed from collected physical letters, but many come from published sources including daily newspapers present in online searchable archives. Some unusual items in the archive are: an anonymous 1917 chain letter giving advice on obtaining conscientious objector status; a 1920 Sinn Fein revolutionary communication; rare unpublished scatological parody letters from 1935; a bizarre chain letter invitation to a suicide from 1937; and a libelous Proctor and Gamble boycott alleging satanism from 1986. An annotated index provides easy access to all chain letters in the archive. An Annotated Bibliography on Chain Letters and Pyramid Schemes contains over 425 entries. A Glossary gives precise definitions for terms used here, facilitating the independent reading of sections.

1. Paper Chain Letters
    1-1  Introduction
    1-2  Motivational Categories
    1-3  Sources

2. Luck Chain Letters
    2-1  Predecessors
    2-2  The Predominant Series
    2-3  Outliers

3. How Chain Letters Work
    3-1  Population Dynamics
    3-2  Distribution Networks
    3-3  Evolution
    3-4  Retention
    3-5  Compliance
    3-6  Mainline Testimonials  
    3-7  Effective Copying
    3-8  Effective Distribution

4. Events in Chain Letter History
    4-1  The Origin of Money Chain Letters (1933 - 1935) (Independent Article)
    4-2  Divergence of Luck and Money Chains (1935 - 1939)
    4-3  Luck Follows Money (1949)
    4-4  The Media Chain Letter (1948 - 1995)
    4-5  The "It Works" Conquest  (1979 - 1982)
    4-6  The Death-Lottery Chain Letter Since 1980


1. Contents of the Paper Chain Letter Archive.
2. The Series of Predominant Types.
3. Feature linkage: terminology and consequences.
4. Occurrences of D, L, LD, DL, and DL variations.
5. Text Alternatives for Major DL Subtypes
6. Occurrences of Trust, Belief, Kiss, Wife's Money, Love, and Car.
7. Text Alternatives on DL Title Variations
8. Text Alternatives for the Car Testimonial
9. Numbers of English Language Paper Luck Chain Letters Collected Since 1995

Letter from Heaven (top), 1795. Above title.
Send-a-Dime money chain letter, 1935. Lead to section 4.1.
Springfield MO pyramid craze, 1935. Near end of section 4.1.



I could not have conducted this study without the assistance and friendship of Dr. Michael J. Preston, University of Colorado English Professor and folklorist. He obtained scores of letters, gave me copies of his files and put me up in his home while I worked in the CU Boulder library. The help of Dr. William F. Hansen, folklorist and Head of the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University was also indispensable. He provided many useful chain letters and translations, and his interest and encouragement have been sustaining.

Special thanks also go to Alan E. Mays, who sent many chain letters, his bibliography on chain letters and the Himmelsbrief, and archived chain email. Paul Smith also provided scores of letters and an extensive bibliography. Anna Guigne sent a stack of chain letters and answered questions. Steve Glickman helped with microfilmed Denver Post articles at UC Boulder. Carol Petty copied local newspaper articles in Springfield, Missouri, where chain letters rampaged for a few days in 1935. John Burkhardt shared his thoughts early in the project and emailed digitized letters. James H. Patterson has provided photocopies of many rare chain letters from his collection of "unmailable" items. Sandy Hobbs sent photocopies of every chain letter that has appeared in the publications Dear Mr. Thoms and Letters to Ambrose Merton

I have received much needed help with foreign language chain letters. Prof. Sarah E. Winter translated several chain letters and an entire article from French into English. Dr. Yana VanArsdale found several Russian chain letters and articles, and translated published letters in Polish and Russian to English. Dr. Jean-Bruno Renard has sent chain letters from France and Brazil, and a bibliography of French publications. Natalia Kasprzak sent two Polish articles on chain letters and translated a Polish letter into English. Bill Clark translated some chain letter Tagalog. Martinovich Vladimir Aleksandrovich provided Russian chain letters he collected, and has translated a Russian version of the Romance Game chain into English. 

Though I am solely responsible for the approach and presentation here, this effort was sustained because a few people expressed interest. I am especially thankful for the encouragement of Richard Dawkins, who suggested I write "a book on chain letters, with all your detailed examples and analyses." This is not a book, but likely it is enough detail for most readers.

A list of those who provided one or more paper chain letters appears on the information page for the archive.


1-1 Introduction.
Seeking paper chain letters   Overview   Auxiliary Files and Conventions

Seeking paper chain letters.
If you have any information on where I may obtain more paper chain letters please email. Any chain letters received should include the postmarked envelope if the letter came in the mail. Even a single letter nearly identical to one already collected could be very useful. Foreign examples, clippings, obscure or foreign references, beliefs and rumors about chain letters, stories of receiving unexpected money in the mail or other personal experiences with chain letters are also welcome.

Texts that appeal to superstition to encourage their copying or publication have circulated for over a thousand years. For English language letters, beginning around 1905, copy quotas and deadlines appeared and claims of divine authorship and magical protection were removed. These innovations probably began in other languages and were translated into English. The resulting "luck chain letters" eventually spread worldwide, and in over four thousand generations of copying (with variation) they accumulated ways to sustain and increase circulation that challenge our understanding.

Using a collection of over 900 dated paper chain letter texts, I have identified types and variations that appear and disappear over the years. Unexpectedly, it was discovered that, repeatedly, a single letter bearing some new innovation had propagated so abundantly and rapidly that within just a few years its descendants replaced all similarly motivated letters in circulation.

Subtle methods that increase replication include the following.

Most successful variations first appear as deliberate innovations; but often the reason an innovation had an advantage over competing letters was likely not anticipated. And some highly successful variations first appeared as copying errors (for example, the demand for 24 copies instead of 5 copies within 24 hours). By testing hundreds of thousands of variations, chain letters have discovered and exploited our secret fantasies and vulnerabilities. In addition to this relentless probing of the human psyche, chain letters have an internal and irreversible history marked by fortuitous changes that emerged from the deadly competition between variations. Chain letters have evolved free to make any promise, free to issue any threat, and free from institutional control. Billions have been distributed despite near universal condemnation. Chain letters are "designed" to replicate, not to help anyone. Hope and fear, truth and error, charity and greed, anything that increases replication becomes part of the tradition. There is no master example or authority to set things aright. Yet this amoral chaos provides a curious service: it instructs us on the generality and inexhaustible opportunism of evolution. Paper chain letters also warn us that great multitudes are no guarantee against extinction. 

Auxiliary Files and Conventions.
Listed here are files in the directory /chain-letter/ and  sub-directories /archive/, /e-archive/ and /photo-archive/ which support this essay and are publicly available.

evolution   The essay Chain Letter Evolution. THIS FILE
bibliography  Annotated Bibliography on paper chain letters & pyramid schemes.
glossary  Definitions of terms used for paper chain letters.
!content  Annotated index of the chain letters in the archive.  Links to paper chain letters.
/e-archive/!content-e  Annotated index of the chain emails in the directory /e-archive/. Links to email chains.
!content-ph  Annotated index of the photographs, and their descriptions, in /photo-archive/. Links to photos.
/archive/!information  Technical information on documenting, naming and formatting archive entries. Additional acknowledgments.
!search  For user search of the Paper Chain Letter Archive. Provided by FreeFind.

When chain letter text is given in-line here it may be slightly edited. Complete texts are indented and may be reformatted. Hypothetical letters and events are given in red. In a sequence of in-line letters, changes over the prior letter may be in italics. Italics are also used for chain letter text within a paragraph.

The following conventions may help the reader decide whether to pursue a link.

Start of above section       < Start of Chain Letter Evolution - Contents

1-2 Motivational Categories
Protection  Charity   Religion  
Luck   Advocacy   Money   Parody   Exchange   World Record   Chain Email

A chain letter explicitly asks a recipient to make or purchase copies of itself and distribute them. It may also instruct the reader to make some modification of the letter, such as updating a list of senders. In this treatise I will use the term "chain letter" exclusively to refer to paper chain letters.

Examples reveal that the form and content of chain letters are highly correlated with the principal motive to distribute copies. I have classified each paper chain letter in the archive into one of nine motivational categories which I define here. Three of these categories (Protection, Luck, and Money) are described in detail in following sections and hence only briefly here. The order of the categories here is the chronological order that English language examples first appeared.

The Letters from Heaven (German: Himmelsbrief) claim to have been written by God or some divine agent. They often command Sabbath observance and promise the bearer magical protections.

Himmelsbrief have circulated in Europe and elsewhere for many centuries. They do not exactly fit the above definition of a chain letter since most do not ask that copies be made, but instead ask the reader to "publish" the text. I discuss them later (> Heaven).

The filenames for the Letters from Heaven begin with the letter "h" in the Paper Chain Letter Archive.


A charity chain letter requests money or some item be sent to a fixed address, ostensibly for charitable, political or memorial purposes.

Charity letters were common from 1888 up into the 1920's, and influenced early luck chain and money chain letters. Apparently 1888 was a boom year for them, judging from newspaper reports. There was even a parody that circulated [1888]. A June 1887 newspaper article found by Patrick Davison describes a "remarkable scheme" for collecting donations by personal contact which uses a pyramid of 6,144 persons to collect $17,412. Participants were assigned one of the six letters A through F depending on their role in the scheme. Early charity letters may have been influenced by such schemes.

A December, 1888 letter in the archive solicits dimes for the education of "the poor whites in the region of the Cumberlands." This letter states it is an adaption of a previous solicitation, and asks that four copies be sent to friends. For compliance ". . . you will receive the blessing of Him who was ready to die for us". Excluding the Himmelsbrief, this may be the oldest chain letter physically collected. An older charity chain letter from the summer of 1888 is described by Paul Collins, and likely some others circulated previously. A report of an 1881 charity chain letter in the Washington Post is apparently false. In an 1892 example, an American college student solicited dimes and ten copies. This letter, like most early charity chains, claimed to be self-terminating: recipients were asked to increment a generation count at the top of the letter until it reached some preset maximum at which time the donation was to be made, but not more copies. This practice continued at least through 1916 [Billy]. Usually, a few years after a letter was launched, only those circulated which had inflated this maximum (NYT 1917). For example, there are two examples of a solicitation for used postage stamps to build a children's ward in Australia (OED). The first is from 1900 and is numbered 173 of 180 maximum. The second, highly modified, was still in circulation ten years later [1910] and is numbered 375 of 480 maximum. Many chain letters exaggerate the loss if there is a single break in transmission [1895]. Apart from intimidating recipients to comply, this may have been influenced by certain mail frauds of the time (Thomas 1900). Chain letters that did not state a termination number were called "endless" for a few decades, and this language still appears in some laws.

In 1989 the Craig Shergold appeal requested get well cards for a dying child (since recovered), intending to break a Guinness world record that existed at the time. It was launched by FAX, email and chain letters. By December 1990 a record 33,000,000 cards had been received (Guigne). Despite efforts to stop the appeal, hundreds of millions have now been sent. Charity chain letters were an influence on early luck chain letters, and in 1935 enabled the advent of money chain letters. They are common on the Internet but most of these are hoaxes {Jessica Mydek}. A revealing item in the archive is a nine page chain solicitation for one dollar contributions to the 1950 campaign of anti-union Ohio Senator Howard Taft. These were rescued from the discarded files of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad police. 

Archive filenames for charity letters begin with "c".

Religious chain letters promote religious beliefs, causes or practices, but do not ask for money. If they do they are classified as Charity chain letters.

In English speaking countries, religious chain letters circulated in small numbers throughout the twentieth century. Most of these have Roman Catholic themes. There is a single example in the archive of a chain letter which is titled  "A Prayer to St. Joseph" which dates back to 1898. The text follows (format shortened, slightly edited):

                                                   Nellie Sullivan

                                              A Prayer to St. Joseph.

Oh, St. Joseph
          Whose protection is so great success so prompt before the throne of God. I place in you all my hopes, and confide to you all my interests. Deign Oh, St. Joseph to assist me by your powerful intercession and obtain for me from your divine foster son all spiritual blessings through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
           So that after having enjoyed here below your heavenly favors, I may offer you my thanksgiving and homage to the most tender and loving of all fathers.

           Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary of contemplating you with Jesus asleep on your arms; but I dare not approach while he reposes on your heart.
           Press him in my name, kiss softly his forehead for me, and ask him to return that kiss when I draw my last breath.

           St. Joseph, patron of despairing souls pray for me.
- - - - -
          To obtain the request granted to this prayer it must be written and given to five different persons who will give it to five others.           Repeat the prayer for nine days after distributing it. It has never been known to fail in any request.
                                                           Nellie Sullivan.
                                               Mary Hennessey.

Note that only five copies are requested, but the prayer is to be repeated on nine successive days as in a Novena devotion. In the last paragraph it is revealed that the sender may have made a personal "request" of Joseph, who is described as the "patron of despairing souls." This and other features, including the claim that "it has never been known to fail," suggest this letter may be a distant source for personal appeals to St. Jude that appear in the classified ads of present day newspapers in the U. S. (>jude)  St. Jude also appears on subsequent English language luck chain letters beginning around 1987 (much later than some have supposed). One appositive for St. Jude is "Saint of things almost despaired of."

Other religious chain letters that have been collected include a solicitation for prayers [1905], and Catholic devotional themes, one of which is called "A Little Flower of Jesus" and claims to be approved by "the sisters of St. Francis"  [1937, see also 1951].

Filenames for religious chain letters begin with an "r" in the Paper Chain Letter Archive.

Advocacy chain letters promote some cause other than religion, and do not ask that money be sent. Often they involve a petition. Also included in this category are announcements and invitations.

1903 postcard, as well as asking that copies of itself be distributed, asks that recipients send their name and address to the "U.S. Moral Society" to be added to a petition to Congress to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors. In subsequent examples the initial communication itself could be a petition, as in an attempt to draft Calvin Coolidge as the Republican nominee for President [1927]. An example not involving a petition is an August, 1940 letter advocating Republican Wendell Willkie for President and asking that ten copies be sent. A 1917 chain letter with detailed instructions for establishing conscientious objector status is a rare example of anonymous advocacy. Other chain letter causes include Czech independence [1949], nuclear disarmament [1985], protests of apartheid [1988], and a libelous call for a boycott of Proctor & Gamble [1986] alleging satanism. Recipients are invited to a party, and possibly a suicide, in a 1937 chain letter. Advocacy chain emails are also common, such as a perennial appeal to support National Public Radio [e1996].

Advocacy chain letters have filenames beginning with "a" in the archive.

Luck chain letters appeal primarily to superstition, promising good luck if the letter is copied and distributed and bad luck if it is not. They are often called "prayer" chains because many prior types started with a prayer or Bible verse.

Luck chain letters may have developed either from a requirement to distribute a prayer in a Roman Catholic Novena devotion [1898], or as a secularization of promises and threats in the Letters from Heaven [1906], possibly in a preamble. The English language paper luck chain letters of the twentieth century will be my principal topic. Most examples in the last few decades are highly traditional, having gradually accumulated varied devices to promote circulation. The lists of prior senders that often accompanied luck chain letters have at times motivated replication in order for one to display to others that a high status person sent them the letter. Since this motive is not catered to by any language in the host chain letter, I have not listed it as a separate motivational category. Luck chains have also been common on the Internet. Though originally these were simply digitizations of paper letters, they subsequently specialized to the email medium [e1995].

Filenames for paper luck chain letters begin with the letter "l" in the archive.

Money chain letters urge the recipient to send money to one or more prior senders, claiming that one can likewise benefit if sufficient copies are distributed.

The key innovation of money chain letters was a list of names and addresses with the instructions to remove the top entry, move the others up one slot, and add one's own name and address at the bottom. I call any list with these instructions a controlled list. Money chain letters originated in the United States in the spring of 1935 with the "Send-a-Dime" letter, also called "Prosperity Club" [Denver]. A prior luck chain letter [1933] was used as a model for Send-a-Dime.  These and other details of the advent of money chain letters are presented in the article The Origin of Money Chain Letters which can be read independently of this treatise, or read in sequence (section 4-1). Money chain letters have influenced the content and distribution of luck chain letters up into the 1950's and possibly beyond (sections 4-2 and 4-3). Also included in this category are pyramid schemes, which we define as not using the mails to recruit (but they may, or may not, use the mails to make payments). Money chain letters continue as an omnipresent nuisance to this day, both in paper [2002] and as E-mail [2001]. Money chain letters and pyramid schemes violate Federal and State (West's CA) laws.

Filenames of items in this category begin with "m".

Parody letters mock the style and methods of circulating chain letters. The request for copies may not be serious, but parody letters have often circulated in the mails.

There is a single example of an 1888 letter mocking charity chain letters which had just appeared in large numbers at that time. This letter purports to seek "brutes in pantaloons" to wed "old maids" in Massachusetts. It was not until the money chain letter craze of 1935 that parodies appeared in large numbers and many varieties. These mocked both the language and geometrical progression of the Send-a-Dime letter, as well as the exchange letters it had inspired. Examples mentioned in the press include the "Liquid Assets Club" [1935] (which may have actually been used to exchange liquor, as was possibly the "Send-a-Pint" letter) and the "Drop Dead Club" (shoot the first person on the list). I have collected several complete texts of early parodies, including some scatological examples [1935]. The familiar "wife exchange" [1953] was very common in the 1950's, and I recently found a bare bones example from [1935] using These wife exchange letters illustrate how punch lines can be topped successively. The early 1935 example simply states  that one may receive 15,125 women for its humorous effect. Then a 1939 example introduces the quip that one man broke the chain and got his own wife back. Though illogical, this disappointing result was the final punch line up into the early 1950's. A mimeographed 1953 letter notes in a postscript that at the funeral of a friend who received 183 women, everyone remarked that "he had a smile on his face for the first time in years." This in turn was topped in 1954 by an account of the difficulties that three undertakers had in removing that smile. The "Fertilizer Club ("go to the top address on the list and crap on the front lawn") [1971] also very likely goes back to 1935, but it is unlikely it would have been published in a newspaper. The wife exchange parody was commercially produced as a postcard [1954], and an undated matchbook advertisement suggests even earlier commercial production of chain letter parodies [1940?]. The wife exchange parody itself fell victim to parody in an imitative husband exchange letter [1949]. Despite commercial publication, chain letter parodies circulated in different versions like photocopied office humor. There is no serious request for copies, thus technically they are not chain letters. Parodies have probably served to educate the public on the fallacies of money chain letters, and have influenced the content of luck chain letters. They are very common on the Internet [St. Paul].

Paper parodies of chain letters appear in the archive with filenames beginning with "j" (for joke).

The exchange chain letters ask that an item of small value be sent to one or more prior senders, promising that if a specified number of copies are distributed the sender will in turn receive many such items. 

Within weeks after the proliferation of the first money chain letter, Send-a-Dime, letters appeared which utilized its controlled list method to exchange items other than money. [1935]  By 1937 the text in these chain letters, as well as the number of names on the list, had been reduced. Unlike luck chain letter types, the copy quota on exchange chain letters varies considerably, as does the number of names present in the controlled list. In chronological order, items exchanged on archived chain letters are: recipes, quilt patches, handkerchiefs, stamps, tea towels, postcards, dish towels, aprons, wash rags, Turkish towels, earrings, QSL cards, Tshirts, new panties, paperback books, dog toys, collectibles, grocery coupons, lottery scratchers and children's books. Exchange chains were still circulating in paper in 1996. Only one example in email form has been collected (a used paperback book exchange).

Filenames for exchange chain letters begin with an "x" in the archive

World Record.
The world record chain letters motivate replication exclusively by claiming distribution of copies will likely set a world record and that participants will be acknowledged. They circulated primarily among children after the new millennium, having developed from a lineage of postcard exchange letters.

In 1976 a postcard exchange letter claimed that it was approved by the US Postal Service as an "educational game for children". It also claimed that it had never been broken in over three years, and that just to delay sending copies beyond three days constituted breaking the chain [1976]. A 1985 cognate, said to have been started by "kids in Germany", asserted that if the letter continued unbroken for a little longer it would be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Later other such letters promised that each person who participated in the chain would get their name in the Guinness record book. But should the recipient not send copies, or even delay doing so for more than three days, the record would be spoiled and all the children "would have to wait another nine years to be in the record book" [1996-08]. This descent into absurdity had became inevitable when an innovation that promoted the total exclusion of adults replicated. On a 1999 letter the recipient is instructed to "... send it to six kids."  Soon this restriction to kids was strengthened ("KIDS ONLY"), and was justified by saying it meant "kids will do the longest chain letter" [2001-04]. Distributions to adults may not have changed the text of the most irrational versions, but increased discard may have curtailed their circulation.

A letter mailed in the new millennium [2000-11] drops all mention of postcards and declares that "it is an attempt to get into the world records." So a new motivational category is necessary to cover this chain since postcards are no longer exchanged. I call this motivational category "world record". Our earliest example also claims that "the post office is keeping track". Further, perhaps to make this seem more plausible, the list of names and addresses, which previously directed the flow of postcards, had now migrated to the outside of the envelope. This in turn nurtured a grave fear: the post office could determine "who broke the chain" [2005-04]. This is no small matter: "it has never been broken so please don't spoil it for every one." An additional feature of this letter was the claim that it would be delivered without a stamp. Cognates collected in the next few years, most of them claiming to have started in Australia, dropped this feature but added the instruction that one should write on the envelope: "This is the official Guinness Book of World Records chain letter" [2001-04], or something similar. Presumably this would allow the Post Office to "track" the chain. This requirement of an external declaration continued on most letters of the lineage, and on these we see again the claim that a stamp was not required for delivery. One only had to write the declaration where the stamp would normally be affixed [2005-09]. This curious feature also appeared on "Lottery-Death" type luck chain letters in 1974  ( > no stamp ), as well as in certain French chain letters. The list of names was soon dropped in the lineage [2001-07], but the claim of Post Office tracking continued without it.

The exchange of postcards is the most logical use one can imagine for a paper chain letter. This is because the invitation to participate can itself be a collectible postcard. Thus it is ironic that a variety of postcard exchange letter gave rise to this most absurd of all chain letters. Most of the propagative innovations on the "kids" type letters are likely accidental or naively motivated, but many recipients must have believed them. A letter from a mother describes her daughter's fear of being identified as one who broke the chain [2007-01]. These "world record" paper chain letters may have been one of the most abundant English language paper chain letters in the first decade of the new millennium. But recently (2012) their numbers may have been greatly reduced by computer searching on text. As for all chain letters here, children's names and addresses have been obscured in online transcriptions.

Filenames for the "world record" chain letters begin with a "w" in the archive.

Chain Email.
The primary focus of this treatise is on paper chain letters. But it is sometimes useful to examine copying behavior on the internet, particularly frequently forwarded email ("chain email"). This has a large and growing number of motives for replication. Hoaxes, humor and expressions of friendship are prominent. The following is an alphabetic list of some of the many topics observed since 1993: admonitions (duty to friends, sobriety, safe sex), anti chain letters, aphorisms, ASCII art and scrollers, communication experiments and demonstrations, consumer warnings, friendship, hoaxes (virus warnings, charity, giveaways, false quotations), human rights alerts, humor (single jokes and lists, office humor items, stories), inspiration, Internet protection (modem tax, phone charges, anti-censorship), good luck (often in sex or romance), missing children, money chains, number guessing tricks, parodies, patriotism, personality tests, petitions, photographs and videos, poems, political commentary, practical jokes (especially April Fools Day), prayer requests, protests, rumors, school & exams, seasonal (Christmas, St. Valentine's Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving Day), speeches, surveys, tag (snowball fight, mooning), urban legends (warnings, humor),
voting recommendations, and Web page suggestions. Many of these topics appear in combination, such as a humor item with a short luck chain attached.

Many e-mail chains began as digitizations of paper chain letters. A very early example is an exact transcription of a circulating paper luck chain letter [e1982 - note archaic address formats]. Paper office humor items were also put online [e1995]. Once established, chain emails rarely surge in replication due to an offhand change or copying error, as we will see occurs within the paper medium. This is because an email is usually reproduced exactly, and thus there are few if any variations. However both luck chain emails and money schemes quickly developed adaptions to the new medium through a series of deliberate hoaxes or calculated modifications. A new restraining factor manifested when email chains were posted on various lists and group venues, provoking critical analysis and ridicule. Recipients of a chain email (and chain letters) are now likely to search the web on key text, particularly if money is solicited. Such a search will discover naive postings and attempts to recruit participants in money schemes. However, high in the list of matches, one will also encounter critical comments and disarming analysis, such as on some of the money chain emails in the archive associated with this essay [me2009]. Email screening criteria by Internet Service Providers have, in recent years, also become a significant factor in the survival of email replicators.

Start of above section       < Start of Chain Letter Evolution - Contents

The collection of letters   Table 1 - Contents of the Paper Chain Letter Archive   Foreign language letters   Publications   Web Sites   Interviews

The Collection of letters.
I began collecting chain letters in 1973 with the hope they would reveal an evolutionary sequence. This effort was renewed several years later after discovering the folklore literature, particularly Michael Preston's 1976 article "Chain Letters" (Preston). This documented chain letters in a state of flux and presented variations of the same letter. Subsequently I placed ads for chain letters in collectibles magazines. Collecting large numbers of more recent letters began in June 1995 when Dr. Preston solicited chain letters for me from folklorists. In recent years I have also purchased old chain letters on eBay, the immense on-line auction. Sometimes copies were provided free by the seller or buyer, or a transcript could be made from auction photographs. I renewed collecting efforts in Dec. 2013 by subscribing to the commercial online newspaper databases and These have provided over a hundred chain letters for the archive and many entries for the bibliography. 

All of the datable letters (except for some foreign examples and recent money chain letters) have now been digitized in HTML format and each is accessible on-line as a separate file in the Paper Chain Letter Archive. An index for the archive lists clickable file names of all items in the archive with annotations for most. The archive directory also contains an information page listing abbreviations used in file names and other conventions. The text of all the letters in the archive can be searched using using a site search engine provided by FreeFind. Transcriptions in the archive preserve the errors in the original letter unless otherwise noted. The medium of the letter, its date of circulation, how it was delivered, the provider, and other information is documented after the text.

Table 1  - Contents of the Paper Chain Letter Archive.
English language chain letters presently (April, 2015) in the Paper Chain Letter Archive are tabulated below by year of circulation and motivational category. Himmelsbrief and religious chain letters are excluded. Scores of additional published letters, especially early luck and charity chains, can be easily obtained from existing online newspaper archives.
Years  Luck  Charity Advocacy
Money  Parody
Exchange World
1885 - 89   4
1890 - 94   2
1895 - 99
1900 - 04
1905 - 09 54
1910 - 14 61
1915 - 19 35
1920 - 24 42
1925 - 29 38
1930 - 34 24
1935 - 39 12

1940 - 44 21


1945 - 49 15
 2 3

1950 - 54 15
   2 8

1955 - 59 12
  1  1 5
1960 - 64 5
1     2

1965 - 69 11
   1  1 1
1970 - 74 16       1

1975 - 79 28     6 2
1980 - 84 37     3 2

1985 - 89 35 1 (b) 11 2 6
1990 - 94 53
1 1 3
1995 - 99 49
1   2
2000 - 04 5

2005 - 09


40 42
95 (a) 45

 Luck Charity Advocacy
Money Parody
Exchange World

(a) Over 100 money chain letters have been collected since 1975 but most have not been digitized.
(b) The Craig Shergold appeal circulated widely beginning in 1989. Many are published (Guigne); only two are archived here.

The numbers in the table may not be reliable measures of relative circulation. Newspapers were much more likely to print the text of a chain letter prior to 1960. The large number of Ancient Prayer examples collected is because it circulated largely on postcards, many of which were saved and eventually offered for sale by dealers on eBay. Recent correspondence is rarely offered for sale. Time gaps in the number of money chain letters in the archive reflects a lack collecting effort rather than circulation.

Foreign Language Letters.
Presently there are over thirty English translations of foreign language chain letters in the archive. Most of these are also presented in their original language as well. There are several foreign language letters that have yet to be translated. 

Because of the ease with which letters are transmitted internationally, chain letters are, and have always been, an international phenomenon. Only by the extensive collection of foreign language examples can an accurate genealogy of chain letters be constructed. It is also revealing to see how chain letters vary from one culture to another. Sub-directories have been established in the archive for chain letters in French, German and Russian.

In 2006 I was contacted by Martinovich Vladimir Aleksandrovich, head of the Center of  New Religious Movements Studies in Belarus. He has collected many chain letters in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. Transcriptions of some have been entered in the sub-directory /archive/russian [content-ru]. 

Of the 900+ letters in the Paper Chain Letter Archive, 230 were found in publications. Early in the project the New York Times Index located many texts of chain letters, and a mention of a McKinley Memorial chain before it was collected (NYT 1906). As mentioned above, I have found over a hundred texts of chain letters using and, online archives of digitized microfilm images. This has filled in many blanks in chain letter history, particularly with the luck chain letters of the 1920's and 30's. Newspaper transcriptions destroy formats and rarely report lists of names adequately. Some French (Le Quellec) and Polish (Robotycki) publications contain many chain letters that have yet to be entered into the archive or translated. Newspaper articles are also frequent in the Annotated Bibliography, which currently contains over 375 entries, most of them from newspapers.

Web Sites.
There are many thousands of WWW sites that match a search on "chain letter." The vast majority of these are about "email" chains, which are not my topic here. A useful list of annotated links appears in Watrous, and I will not duplicate this. To find the texts of luck chain letters one can search for traditional text, such as "Dolan Fairchild" or "Dalan Fairchild." A few transcriptions of paper luck chain letters found this way have been entered into the Paper Chain Letter Archive [1998]. Others are present on the WWW, but it is difficult to judge if they are complete and unedited. An article by Charles Bennett, Ming Li and Bin Ma, titled "Chain Letters & Evolutionary Histories" appears in the June 2003 issue of  Scientific American (Bennett). This uses phylogenetic inference algorithms to construct a cladogram for 33 DL type chain chain letters. These are available on the web, and if dated I have copied them to the archive here.  

I have obtained some information about chain letters and people's attitudes toward them by informal questioning of acquaintances. Several inquiries about foreign circulation have been made on USENET newsgroups. Much more could have been learned by systematic interviewing. However, people who send out chain letters, for luck or money, are often reluctant to reveal their activities and motives. Nevertheless, some interview material in newspapers and popular magazines has been very useful for understanding replication (Marilyn Bender, New York Times, 1968).

Start of above section       < Start of Chain Letter Evolution - Contents


Ancient documents that advocate their own perpetuation   The Letters from Heaven   Transitions to chain letters

Ancient documents that advocate their own perpetuation.
Many ancient texts survive which provide diagrams, incantations or prayers that claim to benefit those who learn them. Some come close to our definition of a chain letter by urging that a personal copy be made. The Ancient Egyptian "Book of that which is in the Underworld" states (of a picture it provides):

Some Buddhists Sutras promised good fortune or spiritual merit for reproducing their text. This spurred innovations in printing technology in Asia. Most of these dharani were likely printed using copper plates. Surely this Sutra set the all time record for the most copies requested. The Great Dharani Sutra was appealing to monarchs, as with the promise that rebels would be vanquished. The small "pagodas" were probably intended to preserve the documents.

Another Buddhist text, the Diamond Sutra, is the oldest (868 AD) extant book printed by wood block reliefs. It promised great merit to those who "observe and study this Scripture, explain it to others and circulate it widely . . ." (Goddard, p. 96)

The Surangama Sutra states:

The instructions concerning paper and "scented wrapping" probably intended to promote the long term physical survival of the text. The Diamond Sutra speaks of readers 500 years in the future. Though perhaps unintentional, texts that are traditionally placed in graves may gain readers even further in the future.

The Letters from Heaven.
The "Letters from Heaven" (often called by the German "Himmelsbrief") claim to have been written by God or some divine agent. Many authors restrict the term to apocryphal Christian letters. These often claim miraculous delivery to Earth, magical protection for the possessor, blessings to those who "publish" them, and divine punishment for disbelief of their claims. The original copies are often claimed to have been written in gold letters, or with the blood of Jesus. Many published versions were illuminated. An early and frequent feature is the command for extreme Sabbath observance, as in the Madgeburg Himmelsbrief [text].

A German authority on the Himmelsbrief, H. Stube, said the letters long predated Christianity (Oda). Examples in Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopic have been published with German translations. Jewish and Islamic Himmelsbrief are also reported (Hand). These may all derive from an early Greek source (Bittner). A letter which was said to have fallen from heaven existed in the third century AD (Hippolytos, Refutation of All Heresies). The oldest Letter from Heaven for which we have a full text is the Latin "Letter from Heaven on the observance of the Lord's Day," the original of which dates from the close of the sixth century (Priebsch). St. Boniface denounced this as a "bungling work of a madman or the devil himself." Eckehard (1115 AD) wrote that it had spread over the whole globe then known to man. It has circulated in English in many versions [1795 text, image].

Jacob, organizer of the Crusades of the Shepherds, claimed (ca. 1251) the Virgin Mary appeared to him and gave him a letter. While in public he always carried it in his hand. A cult of uniformed flagellants appeared in Germany in 1261 claiming to possess a heavenly letter that had descended upon the altar of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem before a multitude. The text has survived: God, angry at human sin, has decided to destroy all life, but the Virgin intercedes and God grants humanity one last chance to reform. Any priest who refused to pass on the divine message to his congregation would be eternally damned. During the Black Death (1348-9) the same letter, with a paragraph on the plague added, was used as a manifesto by a revived flagellant movement. At gatherings the manifesto was read publicly, the audience being "swept by sobbing and groaning." (Cohn)

Some Letters from Heaven specialized in protection, and accumulated long lists of weapons by which the possessor could not be harmed. The Count Philip Himmelsbrief [1895] granted protection against "spear, sword, sabre, cutlass, knife, tomahawk, rapier, helmet, burdon, . . . , and  everything prohibited by holy writ, that is from all kinds of weapons, artillery, cannon, musket, rifle, gun or pistol." A preamble mentions its use in the American Revolution and claims that Count Philip of Flanders sponsored it after he was unable to execute a condemned prisoner who had secreted a copy on his person. Various Letters from Heaven in German were printed in Pennsylvania during the 19th and early 20th century (Oda), [1887 image1 & image2]. 

Letters claiming divine authority are also reported from India. Chain letters circulated in Shahabad in 1864 that condemned the breeding of pigs and consumption of alcohol.  They were said to be from Heaven. In North Tirhut, 1872, cow protection was advocated by "strange papers" which "warned that Jaganath (Lord of the World) would curse any one who did not pay heed to this message and would burn down the house of any one who failed to pass it along to other people." Letters advocating cow protection in 1893 mandated recipients "make and then issue copies to at least five villages" - an early example of a copy quota.  (Yang)

An email chain posted to an Islamic coins mailing list [1999] consists of: (1) an Islamic "Letter from Heaven," which likely first circulated in paper, and (2) a reduced version (testimonials only) of a paper luck chain letter I call the Lottery24 type. In II Chronicles 21:12 it is said that Elijah sent a letter to King Jehoram. It has been determined by scholars that Jehoram did not reign until 14 years after Elijan's death and the text has been interpreted by some clergy to mean that the letter came from Heaven. (1947)

It may be thought that the Letters from Heaven were a phenomenon of centuries past. But searching online newspaper databases reveals that probably hundreds of Jesus' Sabbath Letter have been published in local newspapers in the United States in the last two centuries, continuing up to the 1960's. Searching on the text "fast five fridays" produced 25 matches using and 72 using Most of these printings were responding to requests by faithful possessors of the letter, heeding its command to "publish" it. One columnist revealed: "It used to be sent to newspaper editors, demanding that the passage be published in the paper and setting out all sorts of dire consequences if the editors failed to acquiesce." (1939) Usually a brief succession of possessors is given, some of whom had bad luck after they did not publish a letter in their possession. Such claimed lineages may go back to the original legendary possessor of the letter [1910]. The Holstein Himmelsbrief, which features protection from weapons, has gained favorable newspaper testimonials for its use in both World War II and the Vietnam war: "
He kept track of those to whom he sent a copy of the letter and every one of them returned unharmed from the war." [1968]

Transition to chain letters.
Edwin Fogel, writing in 1908, assumed that a luck chain letter [1908] was a new version of a Letter from Heaven (Fogel). There is little similarity in the texts, but perhaps Fogel was familiar with transitional forms now lost. Speaking of the apocryphal Letter from Jesus Christ [1915], Edgar Goodspeed wrote "it is sometimes sent through the mail with a request that the recipient send copies of it to three others, as some great misfortune is likely to befall him if he does not" (1931). Such a practice must have long predated 1931. Thus luck chain letters may have evolved from the preambles and postscripts to Letters from Heaven. At some stage the divine communication may have been replaced by a less pretentious "prayer," followed by entreaties to copy it. This is the form of the "Ancient Prayer" type [1905 - 1925] discussed in the next section. Some versions of Ancient Prayer promise deliverance "from all calamities" and threaten "eternal punishment" [1906] - as do some Letters from Heaven [Madgeburg]. Folklorists have generally followed Fogel in presuming that luck chain letters derive from the Himmelsbrief tradition (Ellis), though transitional examples have yet to be found. 

In 2006 a chain letter from 1898 was purchased that is a Roman Catholic prayer for intercession by St. Joseph. I have classified this as a religious letter, but it is close to the luck chain letters and is the oldest of either category in the archive, pre-dating the US Ancient Prayer type by eight years. It requests that five copies be sent out, but asks for a repetition of a prayer each day for nine successive days as in a Novena devotion. The abundant and international Ancient Prayer type starts with a prayer to Jesus and asks that a copy be sent each day for nine days [1906]. Thus the Ancient Prayer type may have developed by removing the Catholic context of a Novena devotion that required posting a prayer on nine successive days. The text and a brief discussion of the St. Joseph letter is presented in a subsequent section (>outliers).

More collecting should clarify the transition to chain letters. The first luck chain letters may also have been influenced by early charity chain letters [1888], which likely introduced the idea of a copy quota.

Start of above section       < Start of Chain Letter Evolution - Contents

Features of 20th century luck chain letters
The Series of Predominant Types   Statement Types  
Ancient Prayer   Good Luck   Flanders   Prosperity  Flanders-Prosperity   Blind13   The Luck of London
Chain of Good Luck   Luck by Mail   Death20
  Lottery-Death   Death-Lottery

In this section I list characteristic features of English language luck chain letters, identify certain kinds of statements that are frequently seen on them, classify most of them into 12 sequential "types", and give a complete text and further information for each of the 12 types.

Features of 20th century luck chain letters.

After 1900 chain letters were influenced by increasing literacy, international mail and postcards, and changing attitudes about religion and miracles. Also chain letters themselves accumulated new technologies for increasing replication. Whereas the prior Letters from Heaven usually urged the reader to "publish" the letter, chain letters gained more circulation by relying on individual copying with specific copy quotas and deadlines. The following features characterize luck chain letters of the 20th century.

(1) Brevity. The Letters from Heaven typically had over 500 words and were often elaborately printed. By contrast, the widespread luck chain letter from 1905-25, called "Ancient Prayer", had about 120 words and was usually distributed by handwritten postcards.

(2) Secularity.  Luck chains originating in the 1900's dropped claims of divine authorship, delivery from heaven to earth, granting protection from fire or weapons, divine punishment for disbelief, and miracles generally. A Saint, missionary or military officer may be attributed as the author of the letter, but never Jesus. Promises of good luck and threats of bad luck exploited vague popular superstitions rather than naive piety. 

(3) Copy quota.  Chain letters state a minimum number of copies that the recipient is encouraged to distribute.

(4) Deadline.  This task is to be completed within a stated period.

(5) Waiting period.  But according to most letters, one must wait a certain number of days before receiving good luck.

(6) Testimonials.  All English language luck chain letters since the 1930's contain accounts of fortune and misfortune allegedly experienced by prior recipients of the letter. These testimonials are told in the third person, usually of a named individual.

(7) Circumnavigation.  Almost all luck chains since 1910 have either (1) declared they are to go "all over" or around the world, or (2) claimed a certain number of completed circumnavigations. 

(8) Lists.  When someone signs their name on a chain letter, a recipient may faithfully copy this name, perhaps thinking this was the author of the original letter. Eventually another person may sign below the first name, suggesting to downline recipients that they should do the same. In this way chain letters often accumulated long lists of senders [1922], even though this behavior may not be solicited in the text of the letter.  Initials, names of couples [1975], dates received [1982], and company letterheads [1990] have similarly accumulated. Lists often reached fifty or more names and became a burden to copy [1925] (Lardner). Some chain letters avoided this by instructing, for example, "Copy the above names, omitting the first, add your name last" [1933]. If this processing is always undertaken a controlled list of fixed length results. Other chain letters forbade "signing on" - notably postcard chains [1911] and Internet luck chains [e1994]. The presence of a senders list on a chain letter may change the motives for sending it and the choice of recipients.

The Series of Predominant Types. 
Chronological arrangement and comparison of 20th century English language luck chain letters permits one to group them into distinctive "types" and "variations". This can be an ill defined task, especially during the period 1925-1940. But the more letters collected, the more such grouping can reflect bursts of copying. So the evolution of paper chain letters reveals a quasi "speciation", or "punctuation" in the flow of variation through time. Perhaps such punctuation is a statistical phenomenon that would be present even in a randomly simulated evolutionary process. The types so defined are seen to abruptly appear and disappear over the years. During any one year, it may be possible to pick out a type that predominates circulation in that year, based on its frequency in the archive and comments about it in newspapers. For some years the sample is too small to reliably select a predominant type.

Such selecting identifies a series of 12 types, the Predominant Series, which is listed in Table 2 below. The names of the first three types in the table, and also "Luck of London" and
"Chain of Good Luck", are traditional names that appeared on most of letters of the corresponding type. I chose the other names based on significant innovations present and copy quotas. The "Predominance Range" in the table gives the years a type was likely the most numerous luck chain letter circulating in the US. The "Circulation Range" gives the years for which the type appears in the archive. Note that this range suggests that the circulation of a predominant type can dwindle to zero in just a few years. For the "standard" example of a type I select an older or typical example that does not have any obvious peculiarity or significant deletion. These standard letters are used to define exactly what is meant by a variation within a type. The word count in the table is of the standard example, excluding a list if present.

Starting with Ancient Prayer, all remaining types are significantly influenced by a prior member of the series except Blind13 and Chain of Good Luck. Thus eliminating these two types we obtain the mainline - a century long stream of copying that I often mention.  

Table 2.  The Series of Predominant Types. 

No.          Type  Sample
  Standard No.
1 Ancient Prayer 166
1906-21, 1924 (a)
1906-25, 1938 Leeds
119 9/7/10 9/7/10 9/10  None
2 Good Luck   34
1922-23, 1925-26 (b)
1922-26 Sanders  66 9, 4/5 1 9/4
 Most: X to Y
4 Prosperity   14
1932-37 Hyatt 102 9/5 (c)
1 9/4  Most: controlled
5 (d)
 All: controlled
Luck of London
Chain of Good Luck
 All: controlled
Luck by Mail
 Most: controlled
10  Death20  18
1959-77 Bloomsbury 193 20 4 4  Most: controlled
11  Lottery-Death (LD)   13 1974-75
1974-75 Maryland 383 24 & 20 (e) 4 9 & 4  All: controlled
12 Death-Lottery (DL) 181
1973-05  AFC 351 20 4 4  Early: Some (f)

(a) Circulation in the US in 1924 was dominated by quota ten versions of Ancient Prayer. Two items from England, and one each from Australia and the US, had quota, deadline, and wait all seven [1916, 1925, 1923, 1920].
(b) Augmented versions of Good Luck predominated from 1925-26.
(c) A 1937 reduced Prosperity chain on a postcard asks for ten copies [1937].
(d) "Send this copy and four others" is on Flanders-Prosperity, Luck of London and Luck by Mail types.
(e) On early examples 24 is the quota in the Lottery block and 20 in the Death block.
(f)  Some early examples of DL had a senders' list between the D and L blocks.

Statement Types.

To recognize copying when there is high variability, and to simplify descriptions of chain letter text, it is useful to identify and name certain non-essential yet common types of statements that appear on various luck chain letters. I will capitalize these names to distinguish them from conventional uses of the same word, and allow them to be both nouns and adjectives.

Linkage. A statement on a chain letter which describes one or two of the latest transmissions of the letter in hand. If present, Linkage statements usually appear at the start of a chain letter, and can function as a declaration that the letter is a chain letter (Dundes). They may also be inserted when a list is removed. Linkage statements appear on some Ancient Prayer examples and are near universal on the Flanders type. Examples:

Dear Friend - I am sending you a prayer that I received with the request that it be sent to nine persons.  [Ancient Prayer, 1906]
This was sent to me by a friend.  [Ancient Prayer, 1909]

The above letter was received be me and I am sending it on to you.  [Good Luck, 1922]
The Flanders Chain of good luck has been sent to me and I am sending it on to you.  [Flanders, 1929]

Circumnavigation. A request that the letter is to go all over the world, or that it is to go around the world, perhaps more than once. Or a claim that the letter has already gone around the world some number of times. Examples:

This prayer ... is being sent all over the world. [1910]
It ... must go around the world three times. [1927]

It has been around the world nine times. [Death20 block, 1974]

Expectation.  A suggestion that the reader should "see what happens" after a certain number of days, implying that some joyous event or good fortune will happen. Examples:

... copy it and see what will happen.  [1909]
See what will happen on the fourth day.  [1927]

Affirmation. A statement which, speaking as an observer, affirms the validity of the claims in the letter. It may attempt to explain how the letter works, or restate a claim with different words. Affirmations are highly variable and are often corrupted, rewritten, doubled or deleted. They are universal on the Flanders and Prosperity type letters. Examples:

    "It is positively remarkable how many times this prediction has been fulfilled since this chain was started."  [1926]  
    "The theory is to set up a definite and positive thought. [1933]
    "Here is infinite proof of this progress"  [1940]
    "That's proof for you." [1942]
    "It works!" [1979]

Recycle. A statement which warns the reader to get rid of the letter (often within a certain amount of time), or to distribute it along with the copies that are to be sent. Recycle statements first appeared on the Flanders letters. If there is a list requiring updating, the received copy is no longer a candidate for being sent out again and a Recycle statement will usually not be present. A Recycle warning has become universal on the mainline since 1940.  Examples:  

    "Do not keep this letter in the house more than 24 hours."   [1927]

     "Send this and four others within 24 hours."  [1930]
    "Do not keep this letter. It must leave within 96 hours after you receive it."  [1959]

Among English language luck chain letters presently in the archive, about 90% are one of the predominant types, and 10% are "outliers". I now describe each predominant type in chronological order. This also provides an opportunity to introduce some topics investigated in more detail later. Outliers are described in the next section.

1.  Ancient Prayer.
Based on what has been collected so far, the "Ancient Prayer" letter was the first "luck" chain letter to circulate in the US, and this started abruptly in 1906. It likely circulated in other countries many years prior. There is a mention from France that it was denounced by the Bayonne Diocese in 1905. The earliest US example is a letter postmarked in Leeds, Maine on January 6, 1906.

I received the other day a chain prayer.

    Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, we implore Thee, O Eternal God, to have mercy upon mankind.  Keep us from all sin and take us to be with Thee eternally.  Amen

     This prayer was sent by Bishop Lawrence, recommending it to be rewritten and sent to nine other persons.  He who will not say it will be afflicted with some great misfortune.  One person who failed to pay attention to it met with a dreadful accident.  He who will rewrite it to nine other persons commencing on the day it is received - and sending only one each day will on or after the ninth day experience great joy.

     Please do not break the chain.            [1906]

Note that the first sentence, a "Linkage," is probably a personal communication that has been incorporated into the text and copied. Here "He who will not say it will be afflicted . . ." implies that recitation of the prayer is sufficient to avoid punishment for noncompliance. "Bishop Lawrence" was the Episcopalian Bishop of Massachusetts and a well known author, at least among Protestants. Adaptive ambiguity was likely at work in the predominance of this attribution. Many Catholics would have presumed by his title that Lawrence shared their faith. He actively denied he had anything to do with the chain letter, but received complaints from all over the world for his alleged endorsement. (1926) Beginning around 1910 a persistent new version of Ancient Prayer developed.

The "dreadful accident" and the false attribution to Bishop Lawrence have been dropped and will never return. The advantages to replication of "all over the world" is discussed later (> circumnavigation). The reward of  "great joy" for compliance is present on nearly all examples of Ancient Prayer I have discovered (for Russia, see Viola, note 59). Around 1909 the playful suggestion to copy the letter and "see what will happen" was introduced. This "Expectation" became common (but not universal) on Ancient Prayer and persists in the mainline to the present day [2005]. Early versions of Ancient prayer reveal an influence from the Letters from Heaven. For example, a 1909 letter claims that its rewards and punishments were spoken of in "Jerusalem." This was subsequently replaced by in "Jesus' time", perhaps originating as a copying error. 

An interesting feature in the above 1910 text is the word "stating", seen to be a copying error for "starting" by comparison to other examples [1908, 1911]. A recipient has responded to this error by writing the date (Oct. 6). An abundant variation was soon established which contained "stating", and the date of the prior receipt [1912, 1914, 1915]. The advantage to replication of this variation was probably that it reminded the recipient of the impending deadline, whereas postcards lacking the date of receipt notation could be more easily ignored until the recipient realized the deadline had passed with no ill effect. The role of copying errors in chain letter evolution can be overestimated, as compared to deliberate innovations. But for any copying error to produce a successful variation is remarkable, and I will investigate other possibilities of this below (> LD).

Some Ancient Prayer examples are self titled "The Endless Chain" [1911], or "The Endless Chain of Prayer" (Fogel, 1908)  [1923, 1925]. Chain letters as we know them were originally called "Endless chain letters" (NYT, 1906) to distinguish them from the then familiar self-terminating charity chains. The title "Ancient Prayer" did not appear on American chain letters until around 1909

With U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, Ancient Prayer proliferated and differentiated. Some were exclusive within various fraternal organizations; some prayed for "peace" and others for "victory." An unmarried woman in Ohio received at least three of the Victory postcards just in October of 1917. [1917A , 1917B] The chain was so numerous that the editors of the New York Times proposed that it originated as a German plot to clog the mails (NYT, 1917d). A wartime postage rate increase, from one to two cents for postcards, may have cooled the chain off and foiled the Huns. The same chain postcard with substituted titles had also served the martial spirit of the Central Powers. A German language version, postmarked in Austria a year before the start of World War I, begins "We Germans fear God, and Nothing else on Earth!" [1913]. Immediately after the war Ancient Prayer declined in the U.S. and England. Some resented that "during the First World War they and many people they knew had received letters threatening death or horrors to their loved ones in the trenches of France if the chain was broken." (Simpson 2000). In 1924 Ancient Prayer revived in the US with a copy quota of ten and a new prayer. One such letter has been collected which was written in a fancy script [1924, image].

Though Ancient Prayer continued to circulate for many years after the end of World War I, and even had a boomlet in 1924, the postwar worldliness was not a good fit for its piety. The last Ancient Prayer chain letter to appear in the archive was a much reduced version on a postcard mailed in 1938.

By 1995 the Ancient Prayer chain letter was nameless and all but forgotten. But the chain was preserved on postcards and letters, and these were old enough that they were offered for sale. Of the 165 examples of Ancient Prayer in the archive, about 50 are physical postcards or letters purchased on eBay.

2. Good Luck.

According to some reports (1948, 1968) the Good Luck letter was started by an American soldier during World War I. However our earliest examples come from 1922, a boom year for the chain both in England and the U.S. Thorough searches and inquiries have failed to date the letter prior to 1921. The text was short and secular, and retained the request for nine copies as on Ancient Prayer. Many examples had long lists of paired names ("X to Y") at the top, sender to receiver [1922]. There is a physical example in the archive with 113 names [1926], and a newspaper report of 214 [1925]. Below is a prototypic example, a typed letter mailed from Birmingham, Alabama on June 8, 1922. The X to Y list had 30 entries (I have deleted 27 of them here).  Though "Claude Sanders" leads the list, he was not the author of the letter, though recipients who had not seen this chain before may have presumed so.

Birmingham,Ala. June 8, 1922

Claude Sanders            to           Phil Gleischman
Phil Gleischman           to           M. H. Starr

A. A. Gambill             to           J. F. Suttle

Copy this out and xxxxxx send to nine (9) people whom you wish good
luck.  The chain was started by an American Officer and should go
three times around the world.

             DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN, for whoever does will have BAD
LUCK. Do it within twenty-four hours and count nine days and you will
have some great good fortune.

                      "Let all go smiling through 1922."                 [1922]

No claim is made in the letter that it was started during World War I. "Smilin' Through" was a hit silent movie starring Norma Talmadge. It was released on Feb. 13, 1922. Many later Good Luck letters retained versions of this postscript, often simply updating the year.

Good Luck Augmented.
The 1922 Good Luck chain letter was by far the shortest of all our predominant types (< Table 2). This seems to have invited the placement of additional text both at its start [1924] [1926] and end [1926]. The following example was published by syndicated columnist Helen Worth in 1925.

This good luck chain letter has been sent to me and I am asking you, as I have been asked, not to break the chain. Copy this and send it to nine persons  whom you wish good luck. The chain was started by an American officer and should go around the world three times. Do not break the chain, for whoever does this will have bad luck. Write nine letters and send them within 24 hours. Count nine days and have some good luck.
It is positively remarkable how many times this prediction has been fulfilled since this chain was started.
Much success to you and yours. Let us go smiling and happy through 1925.                              [1925]
Here a standard Good Luck letter (in bold above) has a Linkage statement added at the start, an Affirmation at the end, and perhaps what was an incorporated personal closing after that. This letter is reported to have had a list of 115 names, probably in the X to Y format. With that many names it is safe to assume that the letter had circulated well over a year. Changes can take place in the body of a chain letter while it is accumulating names on a list. [1925]

From 1925 - 1926 augmented Good Luck letters dominated the luck chain letter niche in the US. Such varied modifications can reduce the ease and usefulness of classification into types. Probably it was a modified Good Luck letter that gave rise to the next sharply defined type - the "Flanders Chain of Good Luck".

3. Flanders.
For a Flanders prototype I have chosen a letter published in the Davenport Democrat and Leader on May 4, 1927.
Flanders Chain of Luck.
This letter was sent to me by a friend and I am sending it to you, so as not to break the chain. Copy this off and send it to four persons, within 24 hours, in whom you wish good luck. This chain was started by an American officer in Flanders and should go round the world three times. Do not lose it as you will have BAD LUCK. It is positively remarkable how this prediction has been fulfilled since the chain started. Send this copy away as soon as possible and see what happens on the fourth day.
Pass this on and DO NOT KEEP IT IN THE HOUSE.
The "American officer" of the Good Luck letters has now been placed in Flanders, famous for World War I battles. Either the title on the prototype, or "Flanders Chain of Good Luck", were almost always present. Other key innovations were: (1) the reduction of the copy quota from nine to four (or five) copies, (2) a leading Linkage statement, (3) a Circumnavigation declaration, usually to "go around the world three times", (4) an Affirmation (highly variable), (5) an  Expectation, usually "see what happens on the fourth day", and (6) a Recycle statement at or near the end. Lists of any type are universally absent from the Flanders type, as are testimonials.

Judging from newspaper reports, the Flanders chain was abundant. The name "Flanders" persisted on mainline luck chain letters until the beginning of World War II. In the 1950's "the Netherlands" became the legendary place of origin of most American luck chain letters, possibly a restoration of sorts of "Flanders". Of the 28 examples of the Flanders type in the archive, all but two were published in newspapers. Perhaps the Recycle warning to get rid of the received copy resulted in fewer examples being saved among personal papers.

4. Prosperity.
Folklorist Harry M. Hyatt reported in 1935 that "during the latter part of 1933 a 'chain letter' fad appeared" and he gave a complete text except for two towns and two names in the list that he withheld to protect privacy.

We trust in God. He supplies our needs.      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,
See what happens on the 9th day.
     Hoping it brings you luck.
              J.E.K.                  [1933]

I have selected this "Hyatt letter" as the standard example of a new type, "Prosperity", that probably dominated circulation in the luck chain letter domain for a few years during the Great Depression. There are several transitional forms of Prosperity which ask for nine copies instead of five, and which vary in other ways from the above prototype. [1932, 1933] These early letters suggest that Prosperity was derived from a surviving version of Good Luck, or possibly a translated French chain letter. The copy quota was soon reduced to five on the standard Prosperity letters, but the wait of nine days was retained. The reduction in the quota may have been motivated in part by an increase in postal rates in July 1932 from two cents to three cents for a first class letter. The prior two cent rate had prevailed since 1919. Note that with quota nine, 9x3¢ = 27¢ inflation adjusts to over four dollars now (2015), just for the stamps.

All these letters promised prosperity for compliance so I have named the type "Prosperity". By contrast, the Flanders chain letters, which were replaced by Prosperity in the early years of the Great Depression, promised "good luck". On the 1928 French language Chaine de boneur given by Deonna, there is the earliest example in the archive of pecuniary testimonials: the first two about winning money, the last about ruination. This win-win-lose sequence of testimonials is present on almost all of the Prosperity letters and on subsequent luck chain letter types as well. The 1932-03 quota nine Prosperity letter bears the earliest example of a controlled list that I have observed anywhere.

There are fourteen Prosperity type chain letters in the archive, all but three from publications. Most of the standard versions have: (1) the presence of a controlled list, (2) copy quota 5, deadline 24 hours, wait 9 days, (2) a title that mentions God, (3) attribution to an American colonel, (4) win-win-lose pecuniary testimonials, and (5) an Affirmation after the testimonials. Notably absent are Circumnavigation, Expectation and Recycle statements. Nor are there any Linkage statements, as we should expect since a list of recent senders is usually present. Linkage, Circumnavigation and Recycle statements were near universal on the predecessor Flanders type.

The standard Prosperity letters with a controlled list containing both names and towns probably elicited some cash donations mailed to people in small towns. The absence of a Circumnavigation declaration may be a deliberate omission, since letters sent overseas would not likely produce a donation. This and other features of the Prosperity chain letters are discussed in Section 4.1.  (> Origin of Money Chain Letters)  

5. Flanders-Prosperity.
The following typed chain letter was last signed by a resident of Shelby, Ohio. Penciled notes on the back of the letter date it to before Aug. 1, 1939.

The good luck of Flanders was sent to me and I am
sending it within twenty four hours. This chain was
started by an American Officer in Flanders and is
going around the world four times- and one who breaks
it will have bad luck. Copy this letter and see what
happens to you four days after mailing. It will bring
you good luck. Send this copy and four others to
people you wish good luck. Do not keep this letter.
It must be in the mail twenty four hours after receiving it.

Mrs. Gay Field received $5000, five hours after mailing.

Mrs. Ambrose received $4000, four hours after mailing.

Mr. Nevin broke the chain and lost everything he had.

Here is definite proof for the good luck sent prayers.

Good luck to you and trust in God. He who suffers our

This brings prosperity to you in four days after mailing.

Do not send money. Cross the top name off and put yours
at the bottom.

This is a concatenation of a quota five Flanders letter on top and a Prosperity letter below it. Let me argue the case for this.

The long initial paragraph shares the following features with the Flanders letters: (1) it has a Flanders title, (2) which is followed by Linkage, (3) this followed by typical Flanders copy and deadline statements, (4) authorship is by an "American officer", (5) a Circumnavigation goal is stated, and (6) Expectation and Recycle statements conclude.

The remaining text shares the following with Prosperity letters, though in this case there have been deletions and re-ordering. It begins with testimonials that have as expected drifted far from those on the prototypical Prosperity letter published by Hyatt. Perhaps Ambrose is cognate to Andres. At least the three person win-win-lose pattern is retained. Next comes an Affirmation like on all Prosperity letters. Next we find  "Good luck to you and
trust in God. He who suffers our needs."  This has clearly derived from a title on a Prosperity letter, such as "We trust in God. He supplies our needs" on the Hyatt prototype. Then, after a promise of prosperity, the letter concludes with a controlled list, just as on every Prosperity chain and on no Flanders chain. All this proves our case.

But just before the list instructions above is "Do not send money" - which first appears on these Flanders-Prosperity compound letters. This innovation soon became universal on mainline luck chain letters and persists to this day. We devote a whole section to these four words in Part 4 (>  S4-2). 

6. Blind13.

On June 5, 1936, the Shamokin (PA) News-Dispatch published the following chain letter:
Chain of St. Anthony
This chain must go around the world. It has been started by a sentimental person. You send it to 13 persons and wish them joy, prosperity and good fortune.
As soon as you receive this copy make one like it and send it to a friend, even out of the city. Make one every day for 13 days and you will receive unexpected grace. Be sure you mail this, and say the Apostles' Creed for 13 days.

A woman did this and on the thirteenth day received a letter containing $26. Another woman made fun of this and her daughter went blind. Another woman did not do this and her home and family were destroyed. Pay good attention to this and you will enjoy health and prosperity.
Several other examples of this "Chain of St. Anthony" have been found in newspapers dating from 1936-37. But the chain did not dominate circulation until 1940-41 and by this time the item seems to have appeared on postcards exclusively, and had dropped any mention of "St. Anthony". Apparently identifiable Catholicism limits the circulation of a chain letter in the United States. This may be caused as much by denunciation by priests as it is by Protestant rejection. Here is a standard example of the abundant postcard version from Kingsport, Tennessee:

Oh Lord, be merciful upon us and all nations. This is the prayer of safety. This must go around the world. If you fail to send it a misfortune will enter your home. As soon as you get this card, copy and send it to 13 persons and on the 13th day great happiness will fall upon you and you will receive $16.
One woman made fun of this and her daughter went blind. Pay attention and the Lord will bless you. Please don't let this die in your home. Read the 18th Psalm.

Since the threat of blindness in the family is near universal on these, and to note the odd and unvarying copy quota, I call the type "Blind13". It may be cognate to a published quota 13 Polish chain [1984] titled "Letter to St. Anthony", in which the major threat reads: "A Pole from America tore this letter and his son vanished after 13 days". Perhaps an ancestor of this Polish letter circulated among Eastern European immigrants in the 1930's, its English translation giving rise to the "Chain of St. Anthony", and that mutating to the non-Catholic postcards. Or the influence could be from "America" to Poland instead. Judging from the archive, the peak year for Blind13 was 1941. There is a French language letter from 1955 appealing to Saint Anthony of Padua that also may be cognate to Blind13. A Spanish language source is also possible; thirteen may have been a traditional quota for Mexican letters [1936]. St. Anthony chain letters may have appeared in many countries, always demanding 13 copies and always brandishing a harsh threat to a family member.

From the Kingsport Times article that had the above 1940 letter, the postmaster reported " ... that numerous cards of a 'chain prayer' series are being removed from the mail under provisions of the law. Penalties listed in Section 599 of the postal law are $5,000 fine, five years imprisonment, or both."  The law cited is in 18 USCS §1718 which prohibits visible threats on mail. This would definitely apply to the Blind13 postcard, but the maximum penalties were only a $1,000 fine and one year in prison. The law was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1974. See details. Luck chain letters inside envelopes have always been mailable. Thus, despite many statements to the contrary, mailing luck chain letters, threats and all, is not against the law. Presumably this applies to E-mail also. The ethics of communicating threats is a different issue.

There are 16 examples of Blind13 in the archive, all but two from newspapers. Some have an added prayer for peace [1941]. It is hard to explain why the claimed receipts (and promises) of money for compliance to Blind13 are such specific and small amounts, like the $26 and $16 in the two example
s above. Yet that is part of the tradition from the start. Likely Blind13 was all about its threat to a family member. There had never been such a potent threat on an American chain letter before. The last specific threat was the mention of a "terrible accident" on Ancient Prayer in 1907. Blind13 circulated from about 1936 to 1945, but beginning in 1942 was overtaken in numbers by the mainline "Luck of London" type discussed next.

7. The Luck of London.

"The Luck of London" chain letter was said to have originated during the blitz (1940) and continued to circulate in Europe and America even after the war.  (DeLys, 1948). A letter published in the Neosho Daily News on March 16, 1942 is our earliest example. Columnist Robert McNight described it as a "new type of chain letter". 

This good luck of London was sent to me and I'm sending it to you within 24 hours. This chain was started by an American Officer. It has been around the world five times. The one who breaks it will have bad luck. Copy this and see what happens 4 days later, after posting it. It will bring good luck. So don't keep it. Send this and 4 others to people whom you wish good luck. Grace Fields received $40.00 after posting it. Dr. Arcrose won $1,000 but lost it because he broke the chain. This is proof for you to post it. It will bring good luck 4 days after posting it.
Do not s