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
1,650 kilobytes

Abstract: Apocryphal letters claiming divine origin circulated for centuries in Europe. After 1900, shorter more secular letters appeared that promised good luck if copies were distributed and bad luck if not. Billions of these "luck chain letters" circulated in the last century. As these letters were copied through the decades they accumulated changes from 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. Using an archive of over 900 dated letters, predominant types are identified and analyzed for their replicative advantage. In 1935 the first money chain letter appeared, the infamous "Send-a-Dime," which flooded the world within a few months. The motives and insight of its anonymous author are examined. A 1933 luck chain letter is shown to have provided a model for the Send-a-Dime letter, and this letter itself may have brought unexpected money in the mail to some senders in small towns. In the 1970's a luck chain letter from Latin America that mentioned a lottery winner invaded the US and was combined on one page with a chain letter already circulating. This combination rapidly dominated circulation. In 1979 the  postscript "It Works" was added to it and within a few years the progeny of this single letter had replaced all the millions of similar letters in circulation without this postscript. By examining hundreds of chain letters in the archive, evolutionary hypotheses are formulated that explain these and other events in chain letter history. 

The Paper Chain Letter Archive (contents) presents documentation and text for each of its over 900 chain letters. An Annotated Bibliography on Chain Letters and Pyramid Schemes contains over 425 entries. A Glossary gives precise definitions for terms used, 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).
    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" Blitz  (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, and DL postscripts.
5. Occurrences of Trust, Belief, Kiss, Wife's Money, Love and Car.
6. 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 recently 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. 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. Chain letters can be sent directly to D. VanArsdale, 1404 W. Guava Ave., Lompoc, CA  93436. Include the date you received the chain letter and its method of delivery, as by enclosing 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. Your comments and suggestions for this treatise are appreciated.

Texts that appeal to superstition to encourage their copying or publication have circulated for over a thousand years. Beginning around 1905, copy quotas and deadlines were added, and claims of divine authorship and magical protection were removed. The resulting "luck chain letters" still circulate, and in over four thousand generations of copying (with variation) they have accumulated ways to increase replication that challenge our understanding.

Using a collection of 910 dated paper chain letters, 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 will propagate so abundantly and rapidly that within just a few years its descendants replace all similarly motivated letters in our collection.

Subtle methods that increase replication include:

Though most successful variations first appear as deliberate innovations, often the resulting advantage to replication could not have been anticipated. And some highly successful variations likely 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, they have an internal history marked by the irreversible appearance of new technologies and deadly competition between variations. They 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 in this terrible freedom lies their one service to humanity: they instruct us on the generality and inexhaustible opportunism of evolution.

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 available to all users.

evolution   The essay Chain Letter Evolution. THIS FILE
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.
Information on formats & naming conventions in the archive. Additional acknowledgments.
!search  For user search of the Paper Chain Letter Archive. Provided by FreeFind.
/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.

When chain letter text is given in-line 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 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
Religion   Charity  
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 instruct the reader to make some modification, such as updating a list of senders. Examples reveal that the form and content of a chain letter are highly correlated with the principal motive for its replication. I have classified all of the paper chain letters in the archive into one of the following eight motivational categories. The order of the categories is the historical order of their appearance. 

The Letters from Heaven  (Himmelsbrief) claim to have been written by God or some divine agent. They often command Sabbath observance and promise the bearer magical protection from various misfortunes. They have circulated  in Europe and elsewhere for centuries and were reprinted during World War II and the Vietnam war. The Letters from Heaven do not quite fit the above definition of a chain letter since most do not ask that copies be made. Most ask the bearer to "publish" the letter, and threaten those who disbelieve. I discuss them later (> Heaven) as predecessors to luck chain letters. The filenames for the Letters from Heaven begin with the letter "h" in the Paper Chain Letter Archive.
Several chain letters have been collected that have a purely religious motivation. These include solicitations for prayers [1905] and Catholic devotional themes [1945]. Filenames for these begin with an "r".

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 is 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. 

An 1888 letter 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" [1888]. 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 twenty years, and this language still appears in some laws.

More recently, 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 in September 1989 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, 40 years later, enabled the beginning 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. Considerable pressure was applied to employees to participate. Archive filenames for charity letters begin with "c".

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. They may have developed 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]. 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 propagation. 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 attendant luck chain letter, I have not listed it as a separate 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.

Advocacy chain letters  
are distributed to promote some cause and do not ask that money be sent. Often they involve a petition. A 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 [1903]. Subsequently 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 an interesting and rare example of anonymous advocacy. Other chain letter causes include Czech independence [1949], nuclear disarmament [1985], protests of apartheid [1988], and a libelous boycott of Proctor & Gamble [1986]. Announcements and invitations [1937] are also included in this category. 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.

Money chain letters urge the recipient to send money to one or more prior senders, claiming that one can likewise benefit in the future if sufficient copies are distributed. A list of names and addresses is provided 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]. In Section 4.1 I show how a prior luck chain letter [1933] was used as a model for Send-a-Dime (> Origin $). 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".

An 1888 parody of a charity letter seeks to find "brutes in pantaloons" to wed "old maids" in Massachusetts. But it was not until the 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 This series illustrates how punchlines can be topped successively. The early 1935 example relies simply on stating 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 became 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 recieved 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 the chain is not broken the sender will in turn receive many such items. They first appeared in 1935, modeling the infamous Send-a-Dime money chain letter [1935]. Within several years they had diverged in form, usually reducing the list of senders [1937]. Unlike luck chain letter types, the copy quota on exchange chain letters varies considerably, as does the number of names present. 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, panties, paperback books, dog toys, collectibles, grocery coupons, lottery scratchers and children's books. Exchange chains continue to circulate in paper [1996], but 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.
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 became irrevocable 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 propagation.

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 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, 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 digitizationis 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 a 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 (November, 2014) 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 60
1915 - 19 34
1920 - 24 42
1925 - 29 38
1930 - 34 24
1935 - 39 12

1940 - 44 20


1945 - 49 15
 2 3

1950 - 54 15
   1 8

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

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

1975 - 79 26     6 2
1980 - 84 35     3 2

1985 - 89 36 1 (b) 11 2 6
1990 - 94 52
1 1 3
1995 - 99 49
1   2
2000 - 04 5

2005 - 09


40 42
93 (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 750 letters in the Paper Chain Letter Archive, 230 were found in publications, mostly from newspapers and folklore sources. 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). Recently I have found over a hundred texts of chain letters using and, online archives of digitized microfilm images. Unfortunately, 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 350 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 much 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" - a very 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.

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 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 (1908). 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 Ancient Prayer type by seven years. It requests that five copies by 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   Chain of Good Luck   Luck by Mail   Death20   Lottery-Death   Death-Lottery

Features of 20th century luck chain letters.
Around 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 often urged the reader to "publish" the letter, chain letters gained more exposure 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 chainletter from 1905-25 had about 100 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 that downline recipients 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 enables one to group them into distinctive "types" and "variations". Copy quota is often useful for such grouping. There can be some arbitrariness in this, especially during the period 1925-1940. But the more letters collected, the more such grouping can reflect relatedness by copying. These types are seen to appear and disappear over the years. During any one year, it is possible to pick out a type that appears to predominate circulation, based on its frequency in the archive and comments about it in newspapers of the time. I have identified 11 such types and this Predominant Series is described in Table 2 below. The names of the first three types in the table, and also "Chain of Good Luck", are traditional names that appeared on the letters. I selected the other names based on important innovations present and  copy quotas. The year range does not mean the letter predominated throughout that entire range, but instead gives the first and last year that the letter appears in the archive. Note that these ranges imply that the circulation of a predominant type can dwindle to zero in just a few years. 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.
For a prototype (or standard) example of a type I select the oldest letter that does not have any obvious peculiarity or significant deletion. These standard letters are needed to define exactly what is meant by a variation within a type. The number of word counts in the table are for the standard example, excluding any words that may be present in a list. List descriptions are for the group as a whole. The deadline and waiting periods are measured in days.  

Table 2.  The Series of Predominant Types. 

 No.          Type   Sample    Years   Standard  No. Words    Quota  Deadline   Wait                 List    
1 Ancient Prayer  165
1906-25 Leeds
119 9 (a) 9 (a) 9 / 10 (b)  None
2 Good Luck  34
1922-26 Sanders  66 9 / 5 / 4 1 9 / 4
 Frequent: uncontrolled
4 / 5
4 Prosperity  11
1932-39 Hyatt 102 5 (d)
1 9 / 4  Frequent: usually controlled
Flanders-Prosperity (c)
        "             "          "
Chain of Good Luck
 All: controlled
8 Luck by Mail  31 1949-67 Halpert  132 5 (e) 1 4  Common: often controlled
Death20  17
1959-75 Bloomsbury 193 20 4 4  Frequent: controlled
10  Lottery-Death (LD)   13 1974-75 Maryland 383 24 & 20 (f) 4 9 & 4  All: controlled
11 Death-Lottery (DL) 178
1973-05  AFC 351 20 4 4  Early: varied. Later: very few

(a) Two postcards from England and one from Australia have quota, deadline and wait all seven [1916, 1923, 1925]. Some late US examples have quota 7 or quota 10 with corresponding deadlines. [1920]  [1924].
(b) Some examples read nine days, others ten.
(c) Includes Flanders-Prosperity type letters titled "The Luck of London," [1942 - 1948].
(d) A 1937 postcard asks for ten copies [1937].
(e) "Send this copy and four others" - also on  Flanders-Prosperity examples [1939].
(f) Both numbers appear on the earliest examples.

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 almost always 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:

This was sent to me by a friend.  [Ancient Prayer type, 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 on a chain letter that it 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 on a luck chain letter 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 on a chain letter 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."    [Good Luck, 1926]  
    "The theory is to set up a definite and positive thought.    [Prosperity, 1933]
    "Here is infinite proof of this progress"    [Flanders-Prosperity, 1940]
    "That's proof for you."     [After a testimonial on a Flanders-Prosperity type, Luck of London title, 1942]
    "It works!" [ Hyper-competetive postscript on a Death-Lottery type, 1979]

Recycle. A statement on a chain letter 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."   [Flanders, 1927]

     "Send this and four others within 24 hours."    [Flanders, 1930]
    "Do not keep this letter. It must leave within 96 hours after you receive it."  [Death20, 1959]

Among English language luck chain letters presently in the archive, 443 are from the above predominant series, and only 30 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.
The "Ancient Prayer" letter was perhaps the first "luck" chain letter. It circulated internationally in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Our earliest mention comes from France, where it was denounced by the Bayonne Diocese (1905). The earliest and prototypic US example is a letter postmarked in Leeds, Maine on January 6, 1906.

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.

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. He actively denied that he had anything to do with the chain letter (1926). Beginning around 1910 a persistent new version of Ancient Prayer developed.

Above I use italics for text that is essentially different from what is in the prior example. The "dreadful accident" and the false attribution to Bishop Lawrence have been dropped and never returned. 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 in all examples 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 further possibilities of this.

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.

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 [Hero 1, 2 ]. 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]. After the war was over 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). Two closely related late examples have copy quota ten and a new prayer [1924-02, 1924-03]. This suggests that the war related prayers [1916, 1917] had completely captured circulation, and thus the end of the war required invention of a new prayer. Foreign collecting will likely reveal the worldwide circulation of Ancient Prayer.

Prior to uploading the first version of Chain Letter Evolution in 1998, there was no serious classification of luck chain letters into types. The abundance and duration of the Ancient Prayer letters had been forgotten. But the chain was preserved on postcards and letters, and these were old enough that they were offered for sale. Of the 90 examples of Ancient Prayer in the archive, over 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 officer serving in 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 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]. Here is a prototypic example, a typed letter mailed from Birmingham, Alabama on June 8, 1922. The list of paired names had 30 entries (I have deleted 27 of them). 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."

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.

Within a few years of 1922 some Good Luck letters had accumulated additional text at their beginning. [1924] [1926]  Such changes can take place on letters while they are accumulating names on a list. The names are not intended to change, but copying errors rapidly corrupt them since it is difficult to guess what they should be when they are partly illegible. Fame may counter such difficulty, but it also invites unwarranted placement on a letter, as "Bishop Lawrence" endured for years. If a celebrity name is on a chain letter list, you will usually find it near the top.

After 1924 Linkage was a common addition to the start of Good Luck letters that either never had a list or had it removed. Text, often an Affirmation, was also added to the bottom of Good Luck. So you find letters with prototypic Good Luck text encased in additions. [1926] These developments led to the next type.

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. The title on the prototype, or "Flanders Chain of Good Luck", was almost always present. Other key innovations were: (1) the reduction of the copy quota 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 World War II, then  being replaced by "Netherlands." Of the 24 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 (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.

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. Newspaper archives have yielded two transitional forms of Prosperity which ask for nine copies instead of five, and vary in other ways from the above prototype. [1932-03, 1932-07]. 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. On the 1928 Chaine de boneur 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 pattern is present on the two transitional forms as well as all the standard Prosperity letters. The 1932-03 transitional letter linked to above bears the earliest example of a controlled list that I have observed anywhere.

There are just five standard Prosperity type chain letters in the archive, all from publications. Despite the small sample, I will risk characterizing the type as follows. All 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) the win-win-lose pattern of three 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 always 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. This is discussed below. (> 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 clearly a concatenation of a quota five Flanders letter on top and a Prosperity letter below it. The components of the much edited Prosperity chain have been re-ordered: the win-win-lose testimonials comes first, then an Affirmation, and next a rewriting of what was once a typical two part Prosperity title. The command "Do not send money" first appears on these "Flanders-Prosperity" compound letters, and it almost immediately became universal on mainline luck chain letters. (> Sec. 4-2). The Prosperity block concludes with its controlled list instructions and a name and town list with six active entries. Recall that the Hyatt letter, a 1933 Prosperity letter, had the same type of list, as did Send-a-Dime except its list entries were names and full street addresses. 

"The Luck of London" chain letter is said to have originated during the blitz (1940), was "frequent" in the U.S in 1944 (Collier's), and continued to circulate 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 send money. Good Luck

Clearly this can be classified as another Flanders-Prosperity letter with "London" replacing "Flanders" at the start. Of course the American officer is no longer from "Flanders" of World War I fame. But we still have the leading Linkage, the same copy quota five, four day wait, the pecuniary testimonials followed by an Affirmation, then the "Do not send money" command. And the first two names on this letter are cognate to those on the Hyatt Prosperity prototype: Mrs. Gay Field vs. Grace Field, Mrs. Ambrose vs. Dr. Arcrose. But the win and lose results on the previous letter have now both been reported as the fate of one person, Dr. Arcrose. I classify testimonials in a later section. (> Sec. 3-5).

Considering these comparisons, I do not regard "The Luck of London" to be a new type of chain letter, as some authors do, but rather a variation of the prevailing type of the time. But this variation replaced the older "Good luck of Flanders" version quickly, updating the type to the new World War. Further, in the Prosperity block of the Neosho letter, "This brings prosperity to your in four days after mailing" has been changed to "It will bring good luck 4 days after posting it" in the Luck of London variation. Luck was more needed than money during the war. So if external history were the measure, the "Luck of London" would rank as a new type, as columnist McKnight judged it to be. 

So "The Luck of London" was well adapted to the war years. But from 1940 to 1942, an illegal chain postcard that had circulated in lower volume since 1936 flooded the mails by threatening blindness.   

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, one in Spanish circulating in El Paso, Texas [1936]. But the chain did not dominate 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 propagation 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 1940 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 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. Judging from the archive, its peak year was 1941. A  reporter claims (1978) that  Blind13 dominated luck chain letter circulation during the 1940's. 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. St. Anthony chain letters may have appeared in many countries, and always demanded 13 copies and brandished a harsh threat to a family member. It is almost certain that it did not develop in North America.

From the Kingsport Times article that had 1940 above letter: "Postmaster Howard Long 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 the postmaster cited is in 18 USCS §1718 which prohibits threats visible on mail. This would definitely apply to the above chain 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 an entirely 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 mentioned in the Shamokin example above and the $16 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" variation discussed above. In 1949 another interloper appeared, this one featuring two sudden deaths.

7. Chain of Good Luck.
The letter below was handwritten and mailed from Sandoway, Burma on June 17, 1949 to A. Logozorie at a Roman Catholic Mission in Gold Coast, British West Africa.

Chain of Good Luck

This chain of good luck was send to me via United Press despatch and was sent in 72 hours.  It was started in Africa by a French Officer under General De Gaulls and is going round the world for the first time.  The person who break this chain will surely receive bad luck.  Do not keep this letter.  This must be mailed within 72 hours after your receipt  here of.  A private in the Philipine Army won the first prize in the sweeps takes for complying with this chain.  Mr. Frankling D. Roosavelt was elected for the third term as president of the United States 52 hours after he mailed this letter.  Captain Remero who broke this chain died 72 hours after he received this letter.  Detective Segundo B. Villanueva of the city of Baguio who laugh at this chain of good luck met instantaneous death in an accident on June 14, 1948.

Instruction   Cancel the first  name and add your name to the last.  Make 12 copies and mail it to your friends.  Do not retain this letter.

1. Alfred .T. O.koo     2. Y.T. Chaung.      3. Paul A. Chang.     4. Olive Pan
5. K.H. Chan .    6. N. Lee.     7. E.  Chu.   8.   Franky Monk .  9. G.T. Aung
10. M.T.O.    11. M.K.N.     12.   M.T.H

Copy to:- A. Logozorie for information and necessary action.  [1949]

There are just six complete examples of the "Chain of Good Luck" (COGL) in the archive, but this international chain letter seems to have dominated the luck genre in the US in the year 1949. They all attribute their origin to a French officer serving under General DeGaulle in Africa. Other universals for the type are: (1) the title "Chain of Good Luck", (2) a leading Linkage statement, (3) a declaration that the letter is to go around the world the first time, (4) two Recycle declarations, (5) testimonials featuring a Philippine army private, President Roosevelt, and two victims of sudden death, (6) a controlled list of varying length.

In the leading Linkage statements, all but one COGL reads like the standard example above, claiming the chain was sent via  "United Press Dispatch", or "United Dispatch", etc. But a 1952 example, published in Syracuse, New York, reads: "This chain of good luck was sent to me by Ronald Service, Essex, ...". This may tell us that "United Dispatch", and similar business names on the other examples of COGL, may have started as a corruption of a personal name. COGL has structural similarities to the Flanders type described above. And on a 1928 Flanders example the Linkage reads in part: "The Flanders Chain of Good Luck was passed to me by A. E. Blandfield ..." . So there is a precedent for personal names in Linkage, and the Syracuse COGL example may derive from one. Having a senders list makes a Linkage statement redundant, so if there ever were a personal name in the COGL Linkage it may not have been updated, and instead subject to many generations of unguided copying and corruption until finally someone miscorrected it to a more familiar name - of a business. 

Note also that the 1952 example of COGL gives the city, Exeter, that the sender once removed lived in. None of the four newspaper examples of COGL in the archive give the contents of the list, but here we get a hint that the deleted list on some COGL examples may have contained both names and towns. If the controlled list had enough entries - twenty would likely be enough - one could prove that a chain letter had actually gone around the world if the locations of senders were available. The prototype example above contains only names and initials, yet one might still infer that it was going around the world in a westward direction, perhaps from mission to mission.

If there is one prime reason why the Chain of Good Luck gained so much sudden compliance in the United States it was likely because it contained a potent death threat. "Detective Segundo B. Villanova met instantaneous death in an accident of June 14, 1948."  Such detail! This looks like a news item that came over the wire from "United Press". This was the first explicit death threat to appear on a US chain letter.

8. Luck by Mail.
In 1952 Folklorist Herbert Halpert received a chain letter which I have designated a new type, "Luck by Mail," even though the numerical specifications were unchanged. The text follows, with changes from the prior Flanders-Prosperity type in italics.

This is the debut, in our sample, of Proverbs 3:5-6 ("The prayer"). This was copied on hundreds of millions of subsequent chain letters, though it is absent on some other Luck by Mail examples [1953, 1954].  

Note the famous General Patton appears here, and also, well known at the time, Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen. The implication that a highly esteemed General sent the letter out could certainly boost replication. The descendants of these testimonials still appear over fifty years later, the names and amounts having undergone countless variations due to copying errors. Such changes are often the first discrepancy noticed by observant readers, and thus may serve to discredit chain letters with the public.

The earliest example of the Luck by Mail type in the archive is on a 3x5 card mailed in an envelope from Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1949. It is similar to the Halpert letter except it does not have "the prayer" and the fortunes of Generals Patton and Allen are reversed. It also bears the names "Treasure Telephone" and "United Airlines" at the top, just why I have no guess. Other early Luck by Mail examples had similar fictional business names at the top. Most also began with something like: "The luck of the cards has been sent to you ...".

The Luck by Mail type also introduces "this is not a joke" and the qualification that you will receive your luck "by mail." These are now mainline universals, and I judge the latter to have been the innovation most responsible for the predominance of this type in the 1950's. This hypothesis involves a possible relationship with money chain letters (> Luck Follows Money). The declaration "this is not a joke" is discussed in section 3-4. Around 1954 the geographical attribution to "the Netherlands" first appears and became near universal in the mainline. Lists are highly variable on this type - those present are often trailing controlled lists of prior senders. 

Luck by Mail continued to circulate well into the 1960's, in many variations. This is surprising since a potent innovation appeared in 1959.

9. Death20.
A chain letter mailed from Bloomsbury, New Jersey in 1959 has much text in common with the Halpert "Luck by Mail" letter given above, including the corrupted Proverb, four day deadline and nine day wait. But near the end a new testimonial has been added. Again, I put new text compared to the prior type in italics.

                           THINK A PRAYER

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and all will acknowledge Him and He will light your way."

This prayer has been sent to you for Good Luck. The original copy came from the Netherlands. It has been around the world nine times.

The luck has been sent to you. You are to receive good luck within four days after receiving this letter. It is no joke. You will receive it in the mail. Send 20 copies of this letter to friends you think need good luck. Please do not send money. Do not keep this letter. It must leave within 96 hours after you receive it.

A U.S. officer received $7,000.00. Don Elliott received $60,000.00 but lost it because he broke the chain. While in the Philippines, General Walsh lost his life 6 days after receiving his copy. He failed to circulate the prayer. However, before he died, he received $665,000.00 he had won.

Please send 20 copies and after see what happens to you on
the fourth day. Add your name to the bottom of the list, and
leave out the first one when copying this letter.

                                            Mr. Joseph Kushner
                                            Mr. Irwin J. Cole
Mr. Barry L. Dahne               Mr. Burnard Margoles
Mr. Nicholas H. Hope, Jr.      Mr. Edmond Yandow
Mr. William H. Williams, Jr    Mr. Sydney E. Tindall
Mr. Charles A. Knott             Mr. Clarence Lusk
Mr. Martin D. Munger           Mr. Jack Lumiere
Mr. William L. Morris            Mr. Murray Sobel
Mr. Richard Jacoff                 Mr. James E. Pierce, Jr.
Mr. W. R. Rosensteil             Mr. Lamar Wheat
Mr. George B. Garvey           Mr. John L. Hutcheson, III
Mr. Elliott Guzofsky              Mr. Jim Reilly
Mr. Arthur A. Pomper           Mr. Paul Mako
                                            Dr. Robert B. Jeffrey
                                            Dr. James J. Sullivan

This is the first appearance of an implied death threat in the mainline, though we have George Sylvester Viereck's unverified claim that a letter advocating Sabbath observance stated: "... sudden death will befall you and your loved ones." [1902] The above "Death and Money" testimonial is now on all mainline letters. Immediately after news of this shocking reversal of fortune appears the polite request: The copy quota has been increased from five to twenty! Because of this burdensome quota, backed by an implied death threat, I call this new type "Death20." It also seems to have introduced the puzzling title "Think  a prayer" (or "Thing a prayer") which was common until 1979. This may have been a corruption of "This prayer" or "This is a prayer". [1960] All Death20 letters collected have a trailing list of senders. The striking objectification of luck, "The luck has been sent to you", continued on unchanged in the mainline. A prior form of this, "The luck of it has been sent to you", appeared on Luck by Mail type letters earlier in the year [1959]. The Bloomsbury letter was mailed in a Hospital envelope, the last two signers were apparently doctors, and it was addressed to a doctor in Michigan. Perhaps high quota luck chain letters initially circulated among people with access to secretarial assistance.    

It is reasonable to suppose that chain letter copy quotas have increased because of the availability of photocopying. But in 1959 copiers were not readily available - this is the same year that Xerox introduced its first plain paper copier (the Xerographic 914). 

The Death20 chain still circulates, but an entire chain letter has been added to it.

10. Lottery-Death  (LD).

Apparently in the early 1970's a quota twenty-four chain letter was translated from Spanish into English and put into circulation in the U.S. or Canada. Abundant copies of this letter exist combined with Death20, but no examples of it in English as an independent letter have been collected. There are cognate forms in other languages, such as the French 1979 with a grisly testimonial. I name this type "Lottery24" because of the original copy quota and its introduction of the "Boss Wins Lottery" testimonial:

Constantine Diso received the chain in 1953. He asked his secretary to make 24 copies and send them. A few days later, he won the lottery of 2 million dollars in his country.
State lotteries were spreading in the U.S. in the 1970's and this letter must have appealed to those holding lottery tickets. Since Lottery24 by itself is an outlier that has never been collected in North America, I do not include it as a predominant type. Probably it did circulate abundantly in South America in both Spanish and Portuguese versions, and it was there that it acquired its testimonials adapted to office culture and state sponsored lotteries.

Copy quota 24 letters could have originated when the number 24 as a deadline in hours to complete copying was used instead for the copy quota. This probably happened many times, but was not taken seriously until photocopying became available. Likely the two office oriented testimonials developed shortly thereafter, possibly as incorporated rumors. Collecting of older Latin American chain letters will probably be necessary to verify this. The origin of copy quota 20 on the 1959 Death20 type is harder to explain, though it too could have begun as a misplaced "24", and subsequently changed to "20" by another copying error. Copy quota 24 in the "L" block of LD letters was quickly changed to 20 to syncretize with the familiar quota 20 in the "D" block below it. Quota 24 persists on some Mexican letters [1984, 1995] and a 1994 Brazilian letter.

Around 1973 Lottery24 (L) letters were combined with Death20 (D) on single pages in the two orders LD and DL. This event was documented with unedited multiple examples by Michael Preston (1976). With the appearance of these two high copy quota types in the 1970's, the use of photocopying as a means of reproducing paper chain letters totally dominated. Hand copying all but disappeared. Perhaps a motive for initially combining two chain letters was to reduce photocopying costs after some one received both at about the same time. Our earliest example of the combination Lottery-Death (LD) is a letter mailed from Maryland in 1974.

Saint Antoine's

Lottery24 proclaims Venezuelan origin, contains Spanish surnames, and cognate letters still circulated in Brazil 1994. Further, it is unlike Mexican letters, so its South American origin seems likely. "Saint Antoine" in the title is a traditional author of chain letters in Europe and Latin America.

The above device, "Write  F.E.G.E. in the right hand corner of the envelope instead of a stamp," appears on many LD chain letters. Various initials were recommended (some without the instruction to omit the stamp), and examples also come from France (Bonnet and Delestre) and the USSR. The instruction to omit a stamp seems severely counter-replicative. However the original initials may have been "F.M.B.H" standing for "Free Matter for the Blind and Handicapped." Current postal regulations allow free postage for legitimate purposes if the quoted sentence is written where normally a stamp would appear. Someone in the early 1970's probably misused the privilege in order to mail chain letters for free, protected from official reprisal by anonymity. Most recipients would be baffled by this suggestion, but many would repeat it to save postage. Since the initials were meaningless to most copiers, they would soon be corrupted. In disbelief, some copier dropped the instruction to omit a stamp and advised the initials be written on the upper left hand corner of the envelope. These versions may have benefited by being opened more often than a letter with nothing at all where one expects a return address. The mysterious initials may have themselves spurred interest in the chain. Current U.S. postal regulations require that an envelope claiming free matter be unsealed to allow examination of the contents. Dr. Jean-Bruno Renard has collected an interesting chain letter in France that revives the use of  initials as a substitute for a stamp [2000]. Posting without a stamp is also a feature of many of the recent (2006) World Record chain letters that circulate among children. Post Office automation, rather than deliberate indulgence, may explain why many of these stampless envelopes are delivered to addressees.

The LD type was prolific in 1974 - 1975, and also circulated in the U.K (Times, 1974). Some Hungarian chain letters [1983], though much reduced, reveal descent from an LD source. By 1980 the Lottery-Death letters had been completely replaced in North America by our final mainline type, the "Death-Lottery" letters.

11. Death-Lottery (DL).

The following  letter was collected by the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, in October, 1974.  It was typed, except for the last three names in the second column.

This prayer has been sent to you for good luck.   The original copy came from the Netherlands.
It has been around the world 9 times.  The luck has been sent to you.  You are to receive good
luck within 9 days of receiving this letter.  It is no joke.  You will receive it in the mail.

Send 20 copies of this letter to people you think need good luck.  Please do not send money.
Do not keep this letter.  It must leave within 95 hours after you receive it.

A  B.S. Officer received $70,000.  Don Elliot received $160,000, but he lost it because he
broke the chain.  While in the Phillipines,  General Walsh lost his life six days after
he received this letter.  He failed to circulate the prayer.  However, before his death,
he received $775,000 which he won.

Please send 20 copies and then see what happens on the 4th day after.  Add your name to the
bottom of the list and leave the top name off when copying this letter.

This chain comes from Venezuela, was written by St. Aptine de Cade a missionary from South

Since the chain must make a tour of the world, you must make 20 copies identical to this one
and send it to your friends, parents, or acquaintances, and after a few days you will get
a surprise.  This is true, even if you are not superstitious.

Take note of the following:  Constantine Dies received the chain in 1953.  He asked his
secretary to make 20 copies and send them.  A few days later he won the lottery of $2
million in his country.

Carlos Brandt, an office employee, received the chain.  He forgot it and lost it.  A few
days later he lost his job.  He found the chain and sent it out to 20 people.  Nine days
later he got a better job.

Zorin Barrachilli received the chain.  Not believing it, he threw it away.  Nine days
 later he died.  For no reason whatsoever should this chain be broken.  In nine days
you will get a surprise.
                                   Judy Van Aalten
E. & W. Schmalz                    Arline Robbins
P. & H. Lic [?]                    M. Buynovsky
G. & D. Kalman                     B. Robichaud
P. & M. Edelstein                  A. Boudreau
H. Kirsner                         M. Bevis
M. Lambert                         S. Battaini
J. Lambert                         P. Battaini
P. Brown                           S. B [?]
C. Beasley                         C. Con [?]
E. Spindel                         E. Eff
Phyllis Proctor
John Dyer Morgan
Modesto Antonio Guerra
Carlos Guerra
C. Rosen
Susan Honig

This is clearly a Death20 letter placed above a version of the Lottery24 letter (without a title) that appeared in the prior LD type. This Death-Lottery (DL) type first appears in the archive with an example [1973] published by the well know Canadian author John Robert Colombo (1975). However, since it is missing a testimonial I have chosen the above letter, supplied by the American Folklife Center, as our standard for the type.

One feature of the above letter is atypical - the list starts at the end of the letter. Most DL letters up to 1978 had a list of prior senders like the above, but they were "internal" in the letter, since they originated with the Death20 block and were bounded below by the added Lottery letter. Superstitious recipients may copy a list with the same diligence that they give to the text of a letter. With little room to expand, the internal lists on early DL letters may have been exactly copied for a few years. But by 1979 both these and all the LD letters stopped circulating. As photocopying had became more frequent, there was greater reluctance to comply if one thought some modification of the letter, such as updating a list, was required.

Though I make little use of formatting to infer relatedness, the most common paragraphing of a DL letter trespasses on the unity of the Lottery24 block, placing the last sentence of the Death20 block ( "Please send 20 copies of the letter and see what happens in four days") as the first sentence in the new paragraph starting the Lottery block (right before "The chain comes from Venezuela and was written by . . .") [1983]. This may aide propagation by disguising the compound nature of the letter and its resulting redundancy and contradictory claims of origin.

The early DL type was temporarily eclipsed by LD letters during 1974-75, but a hyper-competitive DL variation captured the entire luck chain letter niche before the end of the decade (the It Works postscript described in > Section 4-5). Thus all mainline luck chain letters since 1980, certainly over a billion, have been the DL type. Within this type are variations that compete with each other for the attention and resources required for replication. The advantages of some of these variations are explained in the sequel (> Section 4-6).

The DL type luck chain letter not only dominated circulation in the United States for decades, it also took hold in many foreign countries. That it originated in the US or Canada, around 1973, is fairly certain since this region nurtured the circulation of the Death20 component as an independent chain letter, and also spawned many early variations, including the unsyncretized 24 copy quota in the Lottery24 component (in LD letters only, as < above). From North America it has spread to many countries. Examples so far collected are listed below - each of the foreign language text cited is supplied with an English translation. 

Despite the success of the DL type letters well into the 1990's, their circulation, at least in English, declined dramatically after the new millennium
(> All fall down ). 

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

Catholic Devotional Letters   The Fortune Chain   The Brill Letter   Mexican Letters   Romance Game   Others

There are over thirty examples of English language luck chain letters in the archive that obviously did not dominate circulation in the US in any year. These are classified into fourteen types, most of which are briefly described below. I start with some rare chain letters classified as motivated by religion rather than luck.  

Catholic Devotional Letters.
1. There is a single example in the archive of a chain letter titled  "A Prayer to St. Joseph". It was mailed from Palmyra, New York in 1898 to Miss Nellie Sullivan in Clyde, New York. Most of the text is a prayer asking St. Joseph to intercede with his infant son Jesus on behalf of the petitioner. This is followed by a request that five copies be distributed and then that the prayer be repeated for nine days. The text concludes with an Affirmation. The complete text (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."

2. I recently (2012) collected a Catholic devotional chain letter that circulated in 1936, just after the Send-a-Dime craze. The letter calls itself "a little Flower of Jesus" and asks the reader to say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. It contains Linkage, Circumnavigation, Affirmation and Recycle statements typical of the luck chain letters of the 1930's. 

3. A rare prayer chain letter from the closing months of World War II asks that one say a Hail Mary or Our Father once a day for nine days, this as a prayer for peace [1945-02]. Four copies are requested within four days, but the letter claims it is "not a chain letter." The sender gives her name and address, and also, as requested in the text, the name of the person from whom she received the "Novena." In addition to this Linkage, the letter contains a typical Circumnavigation statement, Recycle instructions, and an Expectation like that which first appeared in the Ancient Prayer type ("Notice what happens to you on the fourth day.")

4. From Canada and the new millennium we have another short chain letter that calls itself a "Novena" [2000] and self-attributes to Mother Theresa. It asks that you say four Our Fathers and four Hail Marys on the day of receipt. It also asks for four copies ("hand written") and denies it is a chain letter. This and other language suggest it could be a distant relative of the 1945 letter mentioned above. ISP reports giving search strings suggest that this letter continues to circulate in low volume (2009).

The Fortune Chain.
The following handwritten letter, titled "The Fortune Chain", was postmarked in Okeechobee, Florida in 1931.

      The Fortune Chain.

 Jean Fulcher to Mrs Stewart Stanley
Mrs Stewart Stanley to Mrs Wm Conley
Mrs Wm Conley to Mrs E. F. Coverly
Mrs E. J. Coverly to Mrs L. W. Estes
Mrs L. W. Estes to Mrs R. W. Howell
Mrs R. W. Howell to Mrs J. H. Estlinger
Mrs J. H. Estlinger to Mrs C. B. Flanders
Mrs C. O. Flanders to Mrs J. S. Haddock
Mrs J. S. Haddock to Mrs J. L. Hall
Mrs J. L. Hall to Mrs H. L. Hazellies
Mrs H. L. Hazellies to Mrs C. A. Hilliard
Mrs C. A. Hilliard to Mrs E. N. Hilliard
Mrs E. N. Hilliard to Mrs Walter Brantley.

Good luck and good health. Continue this chain and send nine copies to nine of your intelligent friends to whom you wish happiness.  This chain was started in Flanders by a General in the American artillery and must go around the world 3 times.
Forward it if possible within twenty four hours of its acceptance.

Do not break this chain it might give you bad luck. During the nine following days after you have sent the copies a happy event will take place and fill you with joy. The predictions are always true. If you take this as a joke and do not send the copies correctly bad luck may befall you.

Mrs Barnes of Victoria won the big prize in lottery of 20,000 golden liars on the Ninth day.
Mr. Wilcox's home was destroyed on the eight day owing to not taking serious notice of the chain.
Mrs Hux lost her only son three days after receiving this chain without forwarding copies.
Mrs May and Sacha Genty won $250,000.
Pola Negri owes her fortune to having carried out instructions in a most conscientious way.

When a chain letter asks you to "continue" it, it is probably a translated French letter, for they ask you to "Continuez la chaine". The text of this letter has parts obviously cognate to a French letter published in 1928 by W. Deonna. Both the French text and an English translation by Sarah E. Winter are provided in the archive. The French letter does not have a list of names, like the above, but they could have been edited off by Deonna. Note that all (except possibly the first) names on the above letter are of married women. A 1930 letter published in The Indianapolis News is related to The Fortune Chain but is untitled. Another published example from 1930 is close to this, but a Linkage statement has been added that claims circulation among Masons. This is followed by the same prayer that appeared on US versions of Ancient Prayer.

The Brill Letter.
Starting around 1979 a comical rewrite of a DL letter circulated that featured a long list of celebrity names [Brill]. Said to have originated in the Brill Building, it asked for thirty copies and used entertainment industry parlance. All four of our examples date from 1979-80. Perhaps it died out because the celebrity names escalated off the list.

Mexican Letters.
English translations of Mexican letters circulate in the U.S. in low volume. A 1984 example from Oxnard, California has a brief Tagalog addition at the end, and a comment on this in English. The letter has a quota of twenty-four copies, a deadline of nine days, and a thirteen day waiting period. I have been informed that older Mexican letters had a copy quota of thirteen. A recent related letter has two blocks of Tagalog and much transformation of the testimonials [2004].

An English only example [1995], from North Carolina, represents a separate tradition. It states: "This chain would be sent with five cents which will be donated to the church." There was a nickel taped head up on the letter. This request was also present in an untranslated Mexican letter mailed from Pasadena [1980]. A dime was taped on this letter. This sending forward of money seems to be unique with Mexican luck chain letters and is a striking contrast to U.S. mainline letters from 1939 which instruct "Do not send money." This command functioned to differentiate luck chain letters from the  money chain letters that flooded the mails in 1935 (> Section 4-2). Thus this forwarding of a small coin may date from the 1930's also, and may be a different solution to the same discard problem that English language luck chain letters faced. It may also have served to differentiate Mexican letters from translated U.S. luck chains. Hopefully older Mexican chain letters will be discovered that can explain the origin of this feature. 

Romance Game.
We have four English language examples of a classroom note typically passed between young teenage girls. The following was intercepted from a 13 year old girl by a teacher in California in 1995.

These hand copied letters are highly variable. Our paper examples date from 1992-98. In recent years it has invaded the Internet and appears in diversified forms on email replicators dealing with sex and romance [e1995]. A Russian language example, perhaps derived from a French Internet version and adapted for postal transmission, has been collected and translated by Martinovich Vladimir Aleksandrovich [rg-russian].

We have two examples of a chain letter requesting that prayers be said for missionary efforts [1905, 1906]. The first does not state a termination number, the second (which has doubled the copy quota from five to ten) is stated to self-terminate at 1000! A 1926 quota nine letter uses the safety slogan "Cross Crossings Cautiously" in its title, follows with a three sentence safety resolution, and ends with text taken from the Good Luck letter. A 1930 descendant  has dropped the resolution and has an X to Y list featuring many celebrities. I have collected only one circulating paper luck chain letter that is composed completely independent of any textual tradition [Xmas, 1975]. Though it is little more than an obsession with geometric progression, the photocopy appears to have gone through several generations. From the Southern U.S. comes a "prayer exchange" letter that asks the recipient to "say a little prayer for each of the five persons listed below" [1985]. Beginning in 1989, a quota five luck chain letter characteristic of those circulating twenty-five years before experienced a dramatic revival. I describe this well known "Media Chain Letter" in  Section 4-4. A paper luck chain letter that had, like a marine mammal, entered the electronic sea in the early 1990's, emerged back into the paper realm and was mailed from Seattle in 1998

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


Propagation   Circulation and generation time    Exponential growth   Billions of chain letters   The Great advantage of a small advantage    Immunization   Exponential decline   The One-in-a-hundred rule

Modeling chain letter circulation and its changes requires terminology be defined with care. I will refer to a chain letter variation, say V, and a given time t. Here V may be a single chain letter or a group of related letters. First I specialize the use of the term "propagation" so it measures the replicative success or failure of a chain letter.

            The "propagation" of variation V at time t is the total number of receipts of V in the month following t.

Here "receipts" includes passing on of a received letter, first generation copies and any subsequent generations that are received within the month. The one month interval is somewhat arbitrary, but is long enough that if a letter is going to replicate, first and second generation copies should have been received by then. Propagation as an absolute number can only be roughly approximated and is mainly used conceptually here. Thus I analyze what may affect propagation positively or negatively, or compare two propagations. A basic assumption of this treatise is that the propagation of a variation roughly corresponds to the number of examples in the dated collection. However there are many collecting biases:
Circulation and generation time.
The propagation (receipts in the next month) of a chain letter depends on the number of copies "circulating", and how this may change in the near future. Circulation at a given time can be given a precise definition.
The circulation at time t of a chain letter variation V is the number of V received after time t whose parent was received prior to t.
The parent of a chain letter L is the letter used to produce L by copying. It is extremely rare that a chain letter does not have a single parent letter. Many luck chain letters explicitly encourage one to pass on to another the same physical letter received. If this is done it simplifies definitions to consider the received letter as the parent of itself. The circulation at a given time t is simply the number of letters in transition from one person to another, which is  those letters in the mail or otherwise awaiting receipt.

A chain letter may be copied over and over, and if the time between these events were always the same (the generation time, or period), we would have a periodic replicator. Such regularity does not occur for chain letters, but for estimation purposes we presume it does with generation time equal to the arithmetic average of elapsed times from receipt to receipt. 

Surprisingly, a good estimate of this average is available for the abundant "DL" type luck chain letters. There are a few of these which bear a long list of  dates received. Apparently these developed after a single date was placed at the end of a copy and a recipient behaved the same without removing the prior date. The list of dates suggested to downline recipients to add the date also, probably most not realizing there was no such instruction in the letter. In one example there are 72 dates from Aug. 7, 1979 to Dec. 23, 1980 [Bloomington]. This gives an average interval from receipt to receipt of 7.0 days. A 1982 example has 34 dates with an average interval of 7.8 days [Wenatchee]. Probably some senders did not add a date, so the average generation time for these two letters was likely somewhat less than one week.  Mainline luck chain letters since 1970 have specified that the letter "must leave your hands in 96 hours." Adding three days in the mail gives 7 days total from receipt to receipt, supporting the validity of the listed dates.
Exponential growth.
Many perceptions of chain letter "booms" are reported and some show up in the collection. To model these booms I use a familiar type of population change called "exponential growth." The reader may skip the mathematics in this subsection with no loss of comprehension in the sequel.

During exponential growth the increase in a population is proportional to the number of individuals in that population. If p = p(t) designates the population at time t, this condition is dp/dt = kp, k a constant called the growth constant. Solving this differential equation gives

(1)  p(t)  =  po ekt
where the constant po p(0) is the population at time t = 0 (the "initial value" of p). For chain letters it is useful to define time t in days. The word "growth" here can be misleading. The population p is decreasing if k < 0, stable if k = 0, and increasing if k > 0.

In this equation, how might "population" and the "growth constant" be defined and measured for a chain letter?  For variation V, we wish the "population" at time t, p(t), to be the number of "active" letters present - those letters which still have a reasonable chance of being copied. Here I will use the number of letters received in the week previous to t. Other time intervals could be chosen, but this seems a good choice for the DL type luck chain letters since their average generation time is one week. Now choose another number of days, D, during which the number of receipts will be tabulated somehow. We might take D = 7, but in our example below we will choose D = 10 to avoid confusion. Now define the "D rate of growth" at time t, r(t), as:
(2)  r(t) = p(t + D) / p(t)
As the name I have chosen suggests, this is a measure of change in the population, but it is not the same as the "growth constant" k of exponential growth. But suppose the population p(t) is experiencing exponential growth. We can then calculate r(t) using (1) to get
r(t) =  po ek(t + D)
po ekt = ekD.  Note ekD is independent of both po and t.  Since r does not vary with t, set r(t) = r. Solving r =  ekD for k gives k=ln(r)/D. Using that in (1) we get an expression for exponential growth using the D rate of growth r.

        (3)  p(t) = port/D

where, as before, po is the starting population of active letters. The population is increasing only if r > 1.  If it desired to know approximately how long it will take for an exponential replicator to reach a fixed population p when its D rate of growth r is known, solving equation (3) for t gives:

(4) t = D ln (p/po) / ln r

Example: A variation is launched at t = 0 days with po = 100 copies and after one month (D = 30) it is determined that its population (receipts for the past week) has doubled to 200 letters. Presuming exponential growth, this gives the constant monthly growth rate r = 2. After t days there will be an active population of p(t) =  100*2t/30 of these letters. To estimate how long it will take to reach an active population p of one million, use equation (4) to find
t = 30 * ln (10000) / ln (2) =  399 days.

With money chain letters, one hopes that some solicitation or possibility of receiving money increases exponentially. Of course not all these opportunities result in a payment, but perhaps a constant ratio of them will. I call such a process of multiplying opportunity exponential feedback. It is (taken in historical order) the goal of pyramid sales, money chain letters, pyramid schemes and multilevel marketing. The reality of all these schemes escapes this  simple numerical formulation. But the importance of an exponential feedback process is more as an idea rather than a reality.

Approximate exponential growth will occur when a replicator first enters and disperses through a large homogeneous population of hosts, "homogeneous" in the sense that the population's susceptibility to producing copies is initially constant throughout. Periods of rapid growth of populations of chain letters are apparent in the archive. Once many of the letters are going to someone who has already received one the exponential growth model does not apply because of "immunization" discussed below.

Billions of chain letters.
Based on informal polling, a typical adult received at least 8 luck chain letters in the period 1980 to 2000. Thus for a recipient population of a quarter billion English speaking adults (U.S., Canada, and the U.K.), two billion English language luck chain letters were received in that 20 year period. Approximations here are crude, but numbers derived likely under-estimate the phenomenon described.

As calculated above, mainline luck chain letters during these years had a average generation time of one week. Then the estimate of 2 billion received for 20 years (1043 weeks) implies an average circulation (receipts per week) of around 1.9 million. Many chain letters are distributed by hand. Considering this and taking three days from posting to receipt of a letter, on a typical day during 1980 - 1999 there were over a half million English language luck chain letters in the mail.

The Great advantage of a small advantage.
The following scenario of a new variation being introduced illustrates the above concepts. Suppose the active population of a mainline chain letter type is stable: for every 100 received these generate about 100 receipts in turn. To simplify, assume all these letters are periodic with generation time exactly one week. Suppose John Doe gets a degenerate photocopy of one of these letters and retypes it before making copies. He happens to add the postscript "Do not send money!" thus creating a variation V, makes 20 copies and distributes them. When Jane gets a copy of a chain letter in the mail she habitually glances at it and throws it away without reading the body of text, figuring it wants her to send money. When she gets a copy of V she glances at the title and at the bottom of the letter where one might look to see who the sender was. There is no sender listed, but the words "Do not send money!" appear prominently. This communicates at once that this letter does not ask for money. Jane reads the full text and, since she is waiting to hear if she got a desirable job, she is persuaded not to take a chance on bad luck and complies with the demand for 20 copies.

A few others may react as Jane did: say the new postscript induces just one additional person per hundred to fully and effectively comply to the demand for 20 copies. So now for every 100 V letters received about 120 first generation copies are sent out. This is a weekly rate of growth of r = 120/100 = 1.2, and as long as this is maintained the circulation of this variation will undergo exponential growth. Using equation (3) for this example: po=20, D=7, r=1.2, and the active population p after t days is p(t) = 20*(1.2)t/7. With this growth rate, the population will double every month since p(t+30) / p(t) = r30/7 = (1.2)30/7 = 2.18 > 2. But for two years out, equation (3) gives over 3.4 billion active letters, which would greatly exceed the number of English speakers in the world, suggesting exponential growth could not be sustained so long. 

The scenario employed in this example may be realistic for the first few months after a launch. The postscript "Do not send money!" did appear on a mainline luck chain letter around 1939 and rapidly expanded its numbers (> Section 4-5). 

Computer simulations by John Burkhardt provide additional evidence for the "great advantage of a small advantage." For twenty letters initially launched, and (in effect) a weekly rate of growth of  r = 1.0, of 150 simulated launchings not one produced a lineage of over 1000 letters. But when the weekly rate of growth was increased slightly to r = 1.02 then 85 of the 150 simulating launchings still continued after 1000 generations {The Great Chain of Letters - link discontinued}.

In an example above we presumed a population of chain letters was doubling every week. Obviously such growth cannot be sustained very long. The number of possible recipients is limited, and there is an immunization effect whereby receiving more than one chain letter of the same category makes one less likely to comply with copy demands. If one variation of a luck chain is abundant, another variation may be deprived of the attention and resources required for making and distributing copies. Eventually the abundant variation will foul its own nest by the same process. Thus for population booms, the exponential growth model applies only at the onset. More sophisticated mathematical models of growth with limited resources are available but it would be difficult to verify their applicability for chain letters. 

Exponential decline.
The exponential growth model may also be applied to a declining chain letter variation. In the John Doe example above, consider the fate of the unimproved mainline letters (call them variation "U"), which were just hanging on before the V letter appeared. For U, every 200 hundred letters received were producing about 200 receipts in turn. For simplicity, assume that all these 200 out were the result of 10 recipients who fully complied to U and sent out the quota of 20 copies. Now along comes variation V, doubling every month. Suppose just one of the ten U boosters, Joe, gets the now common V letter a week before a U arrives. Joe is likely to throw U in the trash, having already complied to V, and thereby having enough good luck due him to counter any problems this discard could cause. Note that this immunization effect happens even if Joe is one of the 99 out a 100 people who have no preference between U or V. If this spoiling is typical, for every 200 U letters received, now only 180 copies are sent out. This represents a rate of "growth" of 180/200 = .9 per week. Since (.9)7 = .48 < .5, the circulation of U is being cut in half about every seven weeks. The initial circulation of U could have been quite large when the innovation V first appeared. I estimated above that average mainline circulation in recent decades was around 1.9 million letters. Here, when variation V is first introduced, variation U consists of all other luck chain letters in North America. So the initial circulation of U could be as high as 2 million (2x106) letters in transit. Using this, we can calculate the future circulation under exponential decline.
So at one year I might get lucky and collect a U letter from that time period. After two years U is all but extinct. This corresponds to what we see in the archive (> Table 4,  > Table 5). These extinctions are due to the advent of new variations, with what appear to be only small advantages. This example is useful in understanding the evolution of luck chain letters.

The One-in-a-Hundred Rule.

Consider a stable population of quota 20 mainline luck chain letters with a generation time of one week. If a variation arises that gets just one extra person in a hundred to fully comply, the circulation of this variation will initially double every month and within three years it will be the only mainline luck chain letter still circulating.
Such captures of circulation by new variations or types are a common and striking feature of chain letter history. Analysis of why a new variation predominates may be difficult, especially if several innovations are present on a single letter. Because of the One-in-a-Hundred Rule, this replicative advantage could derive at least in part from infrequent or secretive factors in the recipient population, such as paranoia, minority ethnic identification or participation in money chain letters.

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

3-2 Distribution Networks.
Chain Letter Distribution   Core Networks   Efficient Flow

I will consider in Section 3.8 how certain chain letter content influences the selection of recipients (> Effective Distribution). Here I speculate about the flow of chain letters through a population, how flow patterns may persist and change, and how this may affect the circulation of variations.

Chain Letter Distribution.
The following individual behavior holds with regard to certain social replicators, and affects their overall pattern of distribution. This applies to photocopied office humor, jokes, rumors and luck chain letter variations.

(1) Single source: New items are first distributed by only one source: all subsequent receipts of this item derive from this initial source.
(2) Habitual transmission: If two people are exposed to the same replicator and the first person distributes it and the second does not, then the first person is more likely than the second to distribute a subsequent similarly motivated replicator.
(3) Habitual targeting: And this subsequent distribution is likely to include many of the same people to whom the prior distribution was made.
(4) Repetition taboo: But people are disinclined to distribute the exact same replicator to anyone whom they know has already received it.
These facts are clearly true when the replicator is photocopied office humor. These are far too complex to be invented independently; and likely just one person is the source of a new item (an exception may be "Useful phrases to know when traveling in Moslem areas" [1995], which was rumored to have been launched by the CIA while American hostages were being held in Lebanon). Almost all the photocopied office humor I received came from just one secretary, who reported that she got most of it from one other secretary. I showed these to the same friends each time; some often made copies and others never did. No one person ever gave me the exact same item twice. Likewise replicative oral jokes are extremely difficult to invent, except for substituting ethnic or national identities in an existing joke {for example, search for "it's a local call from here"}. And each is likely the creation of a single imagination. In the office, the same few people told me jokes, and did so over the years. One male in particular, who claimed he had been in every bar in the county, was the source of most of the jokes I heard. I either forgot his jokes or told them to certain friends and not others. No one told me the same joke twice unless they had forgotten the first telling. Upon reminding them of this they immediately stopped.

For luck chain letters, "single source" is generally true for significant changes except, possibly, deletions. Evidence for "habitual transmission" can be found in some interviews (NYT, 1968). This may begin when an individual correlates some good or bad luck with receipt of "the letter." "Habitual targeting" can be a matter of convenience, and also compliance with targeting instructions in the letter, which may suggest copies be sent to "people who need good luck." In a hoard of nine linen exchange letters received by one person, the lists of senders contain 22 names and addresses but there are only 12 different ones [xe1940]. Finally, "repetition taboo" is in part a restatement of the immunization phenomenon, which explains the cessation of chain letter crazes. Immunization is understandably a refusal to expend one's own time and money on repeated demands for copies. But when transmission is not anonymous a respect for one's recipients will be a factor. This may still operate for anonymous distribution, though not as strongly. From about 1922 to 1977 the majority of  luck chain letters contained lists of the most recent senders. After 1978 there is not a single mainline chain letter in the archive that bears such a list, and almost all the envelopes these chain letters were mailed in did not have a return address. So there was a dramatic shift to anonymous distribution. However most transmissions were still probably from friend to friend, with the prior "known friend to friend" networks still active.

Imagine the complete flow of a social replicator V through a population. We can represent this by a network of transmissions whose points (nodes) and directed connections (arrows) between pairs of nodes are specified as follows.

(1) Each person who sent or received V specifies one and only one node.
(2) If person A transmitted V to person B then node A is connected to node B.
(3) With each such connection there is associated the time of receipt of V.
The network of transmissions ignores variations of V, considering them all the same replicator. For a popular item, such a diagram might comprise millions of nodes and many more connections. "Habitual transmission" and "habitual targeting," particularly targeting of "friends and associates," suggest that such transmission networks have an independent existence rooted in social and work contacts, and the distribution of prior replicators. A subsequent variation will be passed along to many of  the same people. Perhaps these networks have differentiated parts or "structures" that also persist and that affect the propagation of resident social replicators. An interesting possibility is that the same "single source" of V produces another successful replicator, say V'. If the network of transmission is fairly constant, as suspected, then even far out in the network from the source, replicators V and V' should usually be received in that order. Recording such sequences could be used to infer encore creations and the constancy of the network of transmission.

Core Networks.  
The core of a chain letter network of transmission can be roughly defined as the largest subnetwork of mutually connected habitual senders. Several formal definitions of the core of a network are given in Doreian and Woodward (Social Networks, 1994), but I have so little data compared to the number of participants that computational methods would be very approximate. I suspect this core, as defined, is more numerous and richly connected than would result from random linkages because:

(1)  Various forms of social stratification (gender, age, race, religion, class) suggest the existence of different chain letter transmission networks, particularly when senders are identified. Some evidence of this can be found on chain letters and in newspaper accounts [gender: 1922, 1933], [race: 1935, 1936 see Rule 7] [religion: 2001]. Given that different chain letter transmission networks co-exist, the success of a chain letter variation depends not only on its text, but also on the state of the network that delivers it. These transmission networks are not static entities, but change with changing conditions such as participant age and interaction with other distribution networks. Thus competition between chain letter variations is, in part, competition between the established transmission networks that deliver them. Such competition makes a case for the existence of core networks, since the dense linkage of hundreds of people who habitually and rapidly comply would accelerate exponential growth and sustain circulation by recycling. Transmission networks with a smaller or less cohesive core would more likely disappear or be captured by a rival transmission network.
(2) For over a half century, most luck chain letters had a senders list. And money chain letters require a controlled list to function. Very early in the 1935 Send-a-Dime craze, women called friends to make sure they would re-transmit the chain letter and take the same precaution in choosing their recipients (DRMN-1). Such successful oral recruitment techniques would replicate along with the paper text. About the same time, this quest for prior consent appeared as a postscript in a Send-a-Dime letter [1935-04]. Such selection of recipients will link enthusiastic participants. And though the Send-a-Dime bubble soon burst, the transmission network that developed for money chain letters in 1935 probably partly survived for decades and influenced luck chain letter distribution as well (> Luck Follows Money).
Rapid changes in the circulation of a chain letter, up or down, may relate to events in networks that are not modeled simply by exponential growth and immunization within in a large population. Two networks will share some participants. A sudden increase could follow the incorporation of a rival core network by a new letter. Rapid decline of a letter may follow if the core of its transmission network loses connectivity, as by participant aging or immunizations by a rival letter.

Efficient Flow.
The "repetition taboo" implies that there will be an avoidance of duplicated arrows (A to B and A to B) in a chain letter transmission network. And short cycles (such as the dyad A to B and B to A) will be less frequent. This especially applies to letters with a senders list. If the list contains the last n senders, all cycles of length n + 1 or less can be avoided if one simply avoids distributing to anyone on the received list. Possibly, competition between networks will also develop this "efficient flow" since receipt of multiple copies by one person within a few weeks is wasteful. Those networks with long cycles should be favored. This could also involve a general westward movement of letters, or a tendency to move between three major cities in the same cyclic order. A very large sample would be needed to check for such patterns, nor should we expect that the repetition taboo and immunization alone could bring them about. But my guess is that more persistent structure exists in the transmission networks of folklore than is presently observable. Perhaps some systematized method of sampling will eventually enable the observation of flow patterns.

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

Descent   Variation   Differential Replication   Chain Letter Evolution   Linked features   Cladistics   Behavior that Affects Propagation

Until the 1970's most paper luck chain letters were copied by hand or typed. When photocopiers became more common there was some debate if one could use them for chain letters and still receive good luck (NYT, 1968). One chain letter innovator declared "may Xerox" in a footnote [1975]. Predictably, the mainline photocopiers won this debate [but not for one outlier], and almost every letter that has circulated since 1980 is a photocopy, including originally hand written ones. But late generation photocopies must eventually be retyped because of image degeneration. In recent years this retyping is usually done with a word processor.

The word "copy" here allows that there may be errors, deletions, innovations, and even translation. But let us require that most of the parent  letter is carried forward on the copy with matching details. On extremely rare occasions a chain letter may not have a parent, for example the founder of 1975. Or it may be the concatenation of two letter, for example the very first Death-Lottery type letter - a hybrid. It is convenient to exclude such letters in what follows, and consider only those chain letters that have exactly one parent. A first generation copy may itself be copied, producing a second generation copy, and so on. A letter M is a descendant of letter L if M is some nth generation copy of L, and then L is an ancestor of M. All descendants of chain letter L, plus L itself, constitute a descent group (or clade), with L the founder. The ancestry of a letter M within a descent group is the sequence beginning with M, then the parent of M, the parent of the parent of M, etc. until the founder of the clade is reached. Any two distinct chain letters in a descent group have a unique "most recent common ancestor." This is the first member of the ancestry of one which is in the ancestry of the other. Because of the convention that a letter begins its own ancestry, this means the unique "common ancestor" of M and its ancestor M' is M' itself.  

Two chain letters are regarded as identical if they have the exact same text, character for character, as well as the same text styles and formatting. Usually when chain letter L is photocopied, and possibly when retyped, an identical copy is formed, called a clone of L. It might be possible that two letters could be identical but had different parents, but we can disregard that unlikely possibility. A replicator is not considered to be a clone of itself. For any letter L not a clone, the clone group with founder L is constituted by L and all its clones. Clone groups are the natural unit to consider when describing the descent of variations.

All hyper-competitive chain letter innovations launched since 1975 debut with a burst of many clones, likely as many as a thousand. And this is assuming the innovator and compliant recipients distribute exactly 20 copies, no more. Assume, as in a prior example (< Great advantage), that the innovation experiences initial exponential growth with a weekly rate of growth r = 1.2 (120 letters out for 100 received). Also suppose that: (1) all copies are photocopies, and all these are clones,  (2) all continuing letters are retyped after the thirteenth generation and not before, and (3) no retyped letter is a clone. After 13 generations the total production P of letters will have been:

P = 20 + 20r1 + 20r2 + . . . + 20r13 = 20[r14- 1] / [r-1]
where r is the weekly rate of growth. I have used a familiar formula to sum the powers of r. For the hyper-competitive r = 1.2 this gives P = 1,184 total letters distributed. These constitute a clone group with founder the initial letter containing the innovation. Of course some early photocopies may have misalignment deletions, or someone may retype long before the thirteen generation. These events will lower the number of clones. But most photocopies are perfectly legible after 15 or more generations, and a retype may be a clone (this then producing hundreds of more clones). So a rough approximation of a thousand clones seems reasonable. If we lower the weekly rate of growth to r = 1.1 we still estimate 560 clones. 

The Paper Chain Letter Archive provides overwhelming evidence that chain letters inherit text from their ancestors. From a "Luck of London" letter we read "It has been around the world four times" [1944]. Over 50 years later we read on an Australian letter "It has been around the world nine times" [1997]. From a letter mailed in 1959 from Bloomsbury, New Jersey we read about money won but life lost in the Philippines [1959], just as we do on the 1997 Australian letter.

Inherited details strongly suggest that the letters in the "types" I have identified are descended from a single founding letter for each type. If we start with the Good Luck letters [1922], these and all subsequent mainline letters form a single descent group that extends to the present, and whose founder may have been written in Europe soon after World War I. This descent group numbers in the billions of letters and some of its ancestries contain thousands of generations (over four thousand, if there is an average of one generation per week).

All luck chain letters since 1900 are probably influenced by the first letter with both a copy quota and a deadline. Present day familiarity with these devices masks their ingenuity: copy quota probably began with a single letter and the concept spread only with the distribution and translation of this letter. The same is likely true for deadlines, dropping claims of divine authorship, statements that the letter is to go around the world and non-miraculous testimonials. Such innovations distinguished luck chain letters from the Letters from Heaven with which early luck chain letters were once identified, though perhaps mistakenly (1908). The Letters from Heaven in turn probably have a conceptual founder, perhaps a Greek letter in the first century, and this in turn a pagan predecessor. If we presume there existed spoken rituals that demanded their own repetition, these may all have begun with a communication that claimed divine origin and contained an instruction for periodic repetition. As if echoing this primal origin, many of the Letters from Heaven [1863] emphasized rigid Sabbath observance.

Hand written letters are often difficult to read and thus many variations are introduced as the copier tries to guess what is written. Many errors can also be introduced on chain letters that are usually typed. For examples of the corruption of names see 1926. With photocopying, after some 15 or so generations the text becomes wiggly, spotted and unreadable in places. Titles and other text at the margins may be lost because of misplacement of a sheet in a photocopier or image expansion [1991]. Thus photocopied chains, to survive, must be retyped periodically, which introduces errors and wrong guesses at illegible or missing words [e.g. "faxed" for "faded" in 1997]. Lines of text are often omitted when copiers lose their place in the source letter [compare Newark1 to the close Newark2 - the later has omitted "of receiving this letter" and "He failed to circulate the letter"]. Or the copier may notice the omission, and enter the missing line in a new position in the letter. For example in 1979  "Do not keep this letter" has been transposed with "It must leave your hands . . ."  In 1985 a misplaced period has shifted an important ethnic cue (the Philippines) from one testimonial to another. A few changes are the result of copying what was not intended to be copied, such as a personal comment to the sender, a date, a casual postscript or signed name.

In addition to such copying errors, there are many intentional changes. The testimonial of The Unbeliever's Death is often deleted, presumably for ethical reasons [1981]. Attempts to improve the writing style are seen [1995], and reformatting is common [1991]. Often a brief salutation [1989] or postscript [1997] is added, usually never to appear on another letter in our sample. Sometimes a whole new title [1997], sentence [1991], or testimonial appears [1975]. Both with hand copied letters [1939], and photocopied letters (Preston 1976), a recipient of two chain letters may combine them on one page producing a new and subsequently abundant type.

Probably there are thousands of major innovations every year, but most do not replicate sufficiently to find their way into our sample. There are so many variations, accidental and deliberate, that most retyped letters differ from their parent. I have never collected two identical luck chain letters. Paradoxically, ancestors can still be identified after hundreds of generations, and across translations and subsequent cultural modification. Compare the ancestral 1974 to Hungary 1986, or to the second part of 1999.

There is convincing evidence in the archive that on rare occasions, in copying parent letter X to copy Y, text from a third letter (the "donor") is also placed on copy Y. This process, and the text involved, is called a transfer. Here are some examples.

Any change in the text of a chain letter, from parent to copy, is called a variation. Variations include additions and deletions, and both accidental and deliberate modifications. Since we are extremely unlikely to possess the parent of a chain letter, and for other purposes, variations are described with reference to some standard letter. Ideally this would be the founding letter of a clade under discussion. But since any such single letter is unlikely to have been collected, or if so to be recognized, I often choose as a standard the earliest letter with the features defining the clade, provided it suffers no major deletions.

Differential Replication.
Very clear evidence that chain letter content affects replication is present in Table 4 and Table 6. These show that letters bearing certain variations have greatly increased in frequency over a few years, and letters without those features have totally disappeared from the dated collection. The succession of luck chain letter types (< Table 2) is also proof of the effect of content on circulation. The range of years in Table 2 records the earliest and latest year of circulation so far collected. Thus all the Good Luck type letters in the archive were received during the 1920's, and you are no more likely to receive one today than to be asked to dance the Charleston at the senior prom.

For most variations we can be fairly sure that after some initial appearance, all subsequent appearances of this variation within some group of letters under discussion are descendants of the initial example. Or if the variation re-appears as a result of a transfer or re-invention, we may always be able to verify this by analyzing other variations present. I call such a variation a feature (or character). Features are variations that can be used, at least in part, to infer that two letters bearing the variation had a common ancestor that also bore it.

Some variations are not features, or at least their use in diagnosing ancestry poses difficulties. For example, deletion of  the Unbeliever's Death testimonial occurs independently in separate lineages. Certain corruptions and varying forms of numbers may also appear and re-appear, such as $755,000, $755,000.00, $755000.00 or $75,500,000. The words "Philippines," "receive" and "ignore" are frequently misspelled in the same way. "St. Jude" may be added to a letter, and also removed.

Descent groups (clades) are often considered when their presence significantly increases or decreases in our dated sample. Members of a descent group are recognized by the presence of shared features. Some of these features may have a positive effect on propagation, others neutral, and some may have a negative result. Features that are neutral or negative in an increasing clade are called riders, since they proliferate without themselves motivating replication. Usually there is one key feature judged to be primarily responsible for the increase of the group. Sometimes it may be difficult to select a key feature from two or more positive features present.

Small copying errors will generally be neutral, but some may have had a positive effect on propagation and increased in frequency as a result. Here are three candidates for this curious phenomenon:

Major deletions will usually be negative, but in a some cases the results may be very positive. Probably most changed numerical specifications do not replicate sufficiently to show up more than once in our collection, such as the quota ten (instead of twenty) on the paper DL letter [1987]. But when DL luck chain letters crossed over to the Internet, the traditional quota twenty was soon replaced by quota ten (see q20 versus q10 ). New types usually introduce new specifications, and there is indirect evidence that one such transition in Latin America was due to an accidental change of the copy quota.

The descendants of a single letter have repeatedly replaced all other mainline letters in our sample. I call such a descent group (or its founding letter, or the key feature) hyper-competitive. For example, all mainline letters after 1983 are the descendants of a single letter that first appeared around 1979! This descent group numbers over two billion letters. The key feature responsible for this spectacular replication was probably a new postscript (> It Works). We say this "It Works" postscript  (or the first letter bearing it, or its clade) captured the mainline. Such striking examples of differential replication are surprisingly common in chain letter history.

Sparse sampling may leave hidden several successive captures in the transition from one type to another. Some hyper-competition within types may similarly be undocumented, especially during 1928-1967. Each traditional sentence and testimonial on a mainline letter, in fact every feature, was once either a hyper-competitive feature or a rider on one. Even if several came in together on a translated Spanish block, if we could go back into the Spanish language history of the block, we should expect to find a series of killer innovations that smothered their cousins in paper.

The term "funneling event" from population genetics may be applied to captures, since they reduce the inheritable variation present in a population. These events not only establish highly replicative innovations, but also reset details of text with the features that happen to be present on the founding letter, for better or for worse. Chain letter evolution is characterized by a succession of funneling events through single letters. If a variation, a "small improvement," is merely increasing in the population of letters, it is subject to total elimination by the next hyper-competitive variation. Nevertheless, small improvements do appear to accumulate on chain letters, for example with the mix of testimonials (> Office) or with instructions on to whom the letter should be sent (> Effective Distribution). This appearance requires explanation.

(1) Small improvements may be needed to increment the effectiveness of a letter bearing a key innovation to hyper-competitive power.
(2) Variations that are more frequent because of small improvements are more likely to receive a hyper-competitive innovation.
(3) A universal feature that appears to be a "small" improvement may have previously been hyper-competitive, perhaps during a period of low circulation. Low circulation events are difficult to detect.
(4) The author of a key innovation may have also composed small improvements, or selected and transferred them from other letters.
Explanations (1) and (2) are apparently active in the frequency shifts documented in Table 4 for the sequence of innovations leading to the full It Works postscript. Explanation (4) may apply to the many seemingly concurrent changes that appeared with two new titles in the early 1980's (> Kiss and Love).

Chain Letter Evolution.
I have described the descent and variation of chain letters, and their differential replication depending on copied features present in the text. These processes assure that chain letters "evolve" - that is, they accumulate inheritable features that increase or sustain propagation. It is this evolution that ultimately explains "how chain letters work," and why they worked even as public attitudes and beliefs changed over generations. This success is even more remarkable considering the universal condemnation of chain letters from both secular and religious authorities, and the lack of any real service they provide to their hosts apart from dealing with the false hopes and empty threats that chain letters themselves created.

Richard Dawkins describes the mechanics of chain letter evolution in River Out of Eden, while also emphasizing that chain letters "are originally launched by humans, and the changes in their wording arise in the heads of humans" (1995, pp 146-150). Our collection reveals that there are a great many such changes but very few that significantly increase propagation. And very few of those that do are the result of an innovation designed to work in the way it does. Indeed, some successful changes are the result of accidents in copying. As in biological evolution, successful chain letter "mutations" are rare events that can exploit an opportunity for replication in a variety of unpredictable ways. So chain letters do "evolve," and apart from computer simulations, are probably the best documented and simplest example of evolution known. Yet, unlike computer simulations, chain letters are readable documents that exploit human hopes and fears. This provides chain letter evolution an unlimited palette of invention, and makes their history intelligible in human terms.

Are the similarities between chain letter evolution and genetic evolution worth our attention? In the previously mentioned article "Chain Letters & Evolutionary Histories" (Bennett, Li, Ma), algorithms used for genetic sequences are applied to reconstruct the ancestry of 33 DL type luck chain letters. The authors state " . . .  if algorithms used to infer phylogenetic trees from the genomes of existing organisms are to be trusted, they should produce good results when applied to chain letters. Indeed, their readability makes them especially suitable for classroom teaching of phylogeny (evolutionary history) free from the arcana of molecular biology."

The following biological phenomena suggested or prompted guesses about chain letter adaptions.

Reciprocally, perhaps chain letter evolution will suggest some hypotheses to test for genetic evolution. In particular, the evolution of viruses may be similar to chain letter evolution in ways. (Goodenough & Dawkins).

There are, however, significant differences between chain letter evolution and biological evolution, and how each can be examined. In addition to the presence of deliberate and calculated human innovations in chain letter texts, note:

(1)  Chain letters usually replicate by the production of exact copies (photocopies) of a single parent letter. A successful new variation may begin with over a thousand such clones.

(2) There is no natural way to define a "species" (type) of English language luck chain letter. Incremental variations are rapidly dispersed throughout the English speaking world. By contrast, most biospecies reproduce sexually within intra-breeding groups (species) that have geographic boundaries. Biological species are "real entities of nature."

(3) At least in part because of their asexual reproduction, chain letter history is characterized by the phenomenon of  hyper-competition - the quick capture of an entire niche by descendants of a single letter. Presumably this does not occur with the genomes of biospecies, where funneling is through a taxon such as a genus or species.

(4) The text of a luck chain letter is analogous to the DNA of an organism, but is orders of magnitude shorter, comparable only to the length of a single gene, and like a gene has a beginning and end. Instead of being a sequence of nucleotides, a chain letter consists of readable sentences in a natural language.

(5) Not only can we read the entire "genome" of a chain letter, we can also make reasonable estimations of the effect on replication of any component.

(6) The raw data available for chain letters are far more complete than what are available for any biospecies. We have, in essence, the complete "DNA" for hundreds of examples, including accurately dated "fossil" forms.

Linked Features.
The first appearance of any feature, say H, will be placed on an existing parent letter which itself will already have many variations and features that do not appear on most other letters. Then if H is a hyper-competitive feature, as the circulation of letters bearing it increase exponentially, all the "linked" features present on that first letter bearing H, the founder of H, will be carried forward as riders and become universal along with H. However, we only have a tiny fraction of the millions of letters generated in any year, and thus can not be sure what the founder of H looked like. Chain letter phylogeny is essentially the knowledge of which features were added to what pre-existing features.

If every letter in the archive which bears feature H also bears feature G, and visa versa, this does not imply they appear together on all letters ever produced (if so we say G and H were concurrent). It is quite possible that G could have appeared first and later H was added to a letter bearing G, but no example of G without H has been collected. For chain letters there is no way to deduce concurrence of two features solely from texts, unless one had every letter ever produced. If features G and H are both present in a group of letters under discussion, the following table lists the five possible ways they may appear with relation to each other. The symbol {G, GH}, for example, means that within the group of letters: (1) G appears without H on at least one letter; (2) G appears with H, in any order, on at least one other letter, and (3) H does not appear without G, otherwise I would have written {G, H, GH}. The five possible relationships between G and H are all hypotheses, subject to revision depending on subsequent collecting or verification of certain deletions or transfers. None of these relationships depend on recorded dates of circulation for letters, though dates may be used in arguing for or against spoiling exceptions. However, the pre-linkage of feature G to feature H implies that G appeared before H.

Table 3. Feature linkage: terminology and consequences.

My terminology:
G is _____ to H
All known presences
of G and H in the clade.
Cladistic terminology:
G is ____ relative to H
If H becomes universal,
G becomes _______
Possible Origin
1. unlinked

H was first added to a
letter with G deleted.
GH exists but is
2. pre-linked
or ancestral
G was on the letter that
H was first added to.
All G are by deletion
of H from GH.