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EMAIL THIS OR YOUR CRUSH WILL DIE: The History of the Chain Letter

From fake Oprah pyramid schemes to medieval hoaxes, the chain letter has targeted women and girls for centuries.

by Alexandra Hayward
Dec 9 2015, 7:00pm

Photo by Guille Faingold via Stocksy

Impending death, computer viruses, money laundering schemes: Persuasive or superstitious chain letters have existed for over a thousand years. Historically, the oldest letter's motive was to hoax, misinform, and gather momentum. More recently, you may have received them as kids from a friend at school or in the neighbourhood. Once opened, the ink was metaphorical anthrax; you'd be marked with a threat powered by black magic.

Folklorist Daniel W. Van Arsdale suggests the content of such notorious correspondence has unveiled and exploited various human fantasies, sensibilities, and vulnerabilities. "They have evolved free to make any promise, issue any threat," he explains. "Billions have been distributed despite near universal condemnation. But chain letters are designed to replicate, not to help anyone."

A Chain Letter from Jesus

Chain letters started out bearing religious sentiments. Each came with its own hallmarks: east Asian letters carrying Buddhist rites even bore instructions on how to preserve the letter for posterity. "Correspondence such as this targeted soldiers right up until the Vietnam War," Van Arsdale says. Authorities and the media were not immune to the seduction of these letters. "When the US entered WWI, no less than the New York Times thought the Germans were trying to 'clog the mails' with a chain letter."

But it's a letter from the West that remains the oldest known surviving chain letter. The crumbling, yellow scroll known as the 'Letter From Heaven' is a copied letter first published in 1795. It details an imagined pen-friendship shared by Jesus and King Abgar of Edessa, and the main targets of charming Anon's threat are the general recipients who decide to bin the letter rather than handcopy and redistribute.

The 18th century chain letter from Heaven. Photo via Wikimedia

It even comes with its own disclosure (how modern), setting the basic cliches of chain correspondence into motion. In other words: Re-publish this letter and you will prosper and remain alive. Don't and I will make you very ill, resulting in you being snuffed out. P.S I don't have an address so don't try and find me.

Van Arsdale adds that the key motive for replicating the letter was to obtain safeguarding, usually in domestic concerns. "Preventing fires, safe childbirth, a good harvest... others were promised safety on the battlefield. An example that circulated as far back a colonial America had a long list of weapons it claimed to protect the bearer from." Most notably pregnant women—and their unborn children—seem to be threatened worst in the text of the 'Letter from Heaven,' perhaps beginning chain letters' centuries-long tradition of emotional blackmail towards the fairer sex.

Send a Dime, Ladies

In the late 1880s, chains were commonly more secularist, but namchecked pagan elements like the superstititous properties of the number nine. Examples of this include the strain of luck letters we may remember as children. "That, say, nine copies were to be sent once a day on consecutive days developed out of a Novena practice," my folklorist tells me. A novena—derived from the Latin for nine—is a typically Roman Catholic recital of prayers over nine consecutive days (its namesake is attributed to Jesus' nine months in the womb and his later giving up of his spirit on the ninth hour during the crucifixion).

Charity letters, and ones asking for or promising money, were typically signed by women; perhaps alluding to the trope that females are more trustworthy than males. With the advent of the postal service, one of history's postal avalanches was caused by the Send-A-Dime money scheme, said to have been authored originally by a woman with charitable concerns. Send-A-Dime, founded by an untraceable 'Jane Doe' in a post-Depression America, basically precipitated the floods of pyramid money schemes of the decades following.

It urged the recipient to remove the name of the person at the top of a six-person list and send that person a dime. You were to replace the vacated spot at the bottom with your own name, then pass it on. As poor and desperate civilians began to see some sort of early return on the scheme, names became to be skipped, duplicated, and distributed in their hundreds, causing the collapse of the scheme.

An Oprah and 20/20 chain letter from 2015. Photo via Flickr user Judith E. Bell

My own dad testifies to the power of a pyramid scheme after he won some thousands of pounds on a scheme not unlike Send-A-Dime in the early 2000s. "Eventually it can't survive, but there's always an initiator who thinks they've found a way of it not collapsing." Eventually my dad was left with thousands of others' cash, which he duly returned and swore not take part again. "I did of course. We all did, a few years later." Monetary desire and capitalist earning always prevails.

"In modern terminology, it is fair to say that the author of Send-A-Dime was the greatest 'mind virus' designer of the 20th century," Van Arsdale proposes. "Perhaps some ancient predecessors should be ranked higher, such as the person who invented the concept of Hell (and is perhaps the only person who deserves to reside there). But for chain letters, Jane Doe is the reigning queen. Women's names on chain letters are probably authentic. There were some luck chains, around 1920, that asked that they be sent to women, or to couples. Many women, especially married women, would not send out a letter with a list of names that implied a man had sent it to them."

Photo by Kristin Duvall via Stocksy

The Get Lucky Letters

The luck letters are of most interest to folklorists, as they shed light on social and technological climate. 'Whilst women seem to have dominated with the charity letters from 1888 to 1925, luck chain letters appealed to both genders and all levels of education and income," Van Arsdale says. "There was some racial and gender specialization in the 1920s and 30s. Some of their features are remarkably clever. Some such changes arose from copying errors, supplying an analogy to organic evolution." Even words as simple as 'chain' were recopied as 'charm,' bringing back the magical, mystical element of its aged predecessors.

Another example lies in South American and Filipino chain correspondence, which best displays the temporary, fragile nature of hand-copying and distributing a letter. A request for '5 copies in 24 hours' was miscopied to '24 copies.' Formulas change between people, like Chinese whispers, and quickly create a unique luck chain.

While the 70s led to the emergence of Xerox machines, the 90s brought the internet into most homes, meaning paper chains pretty much died out after a decade. The rules and patterns of what were now chain emails began to change, blur, and die out faster. They became more ridiculous, obscene, and laughable. The ghost of a headless little girl who died ten years ago would get you if you didn't pass the email onto ten friends, or you would be cursed in love; your current crush would DIE if you didn't forward to your entire mailing list. When you're 13 and the safety of that hearthrob from Maths class is threatened, what's a girl to do? Many cash-oriented hoaxes remained, usually including the name of entrepreneur billiionaires, supposedly conducted at the height of internet's golden age where Hotmail, AOL et al blew our tiny minds. And it's not over. I saw this posted on Facebook last night:

Screenshot via Facebook

In 2015, it's not all doom and gloom. Lots of manual forms of correspondence loosely echo chains, if you're lucky, you might discover a great book signed and left by a stranger on a train. But typically you find these, rather than the letter seeking you. Plus there's probably no threat of someone's spirit coming to haunt you or of losing a shitload of money. And there's more fun and games created by the chain phenomenon. The fascinating 2014 horror film It Follows takes the blueprint and finds a way to, very entertainingly (albeit dubiously) compare it to the transmission of sexual disease.

Social Slacktivism and Online Chains

You could say that chain letters reached their glory days when email was invented. But it only takes a glance at your Facebook feed today to see repeated messages being copied and pasted in the same way. Instead of fearing that the Grim Reaper will get you if you don't send on a chain letter, we start to fear for our social appearance. Does it look like we don't care if we don't adhere to certain 'sharing' trends?

"People show affiliation to a movement or situation because they want to show their networks, both on and offline, that they ideologically support it—this polarizes their networks into either accepting it or leaving. It's a pack mentality that extends back to our primal roots," says Lydia Wright, a social studies professor. This phenomenon can be observed in our online activism or engagement online, where the barriers are extremely low. "Google the term 'slacktivism,' and you'll get a sense of the literature out there covering the idea of online empty political gestures. Mentally, it is essentially satisfying the same desire—in a practical sense, though, there would seem to be a disconnect."

Read More: The History of Female Anger

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, people around the world adopted tricolor tinted colors on their Facebook profile pictures. The trend divided opinion, but is certainly an example of a chain letter: It's emotionally manipulative, it presses the buttons of one's social conscience—and there's no doubt there is some monetary gain for Facebook on the basis of such viral success. Wright offers her estimation. "I would chalk it all up to something where people want to be involved, but not really when it gets to the dirty work. Given an easy out, people take it in an effort to satisfy that same assertion of leadership position, but not to an extent where they are really risking anything."

Interestingly, some people chose to undo the 'sharing' action offered by Facebook pretty soon after adopting it in the first place. It's up to you whether or not you want to be part of the chain, and it always has been. But chances are you're best staying out of it. Wright agrees: "It is, in the social signalling/capital accumulation system, very little risk, very little payoff."