On the occasion of the release of the horror film Chain Letter, in which "a maniac murders teens when they refuse to forward chain mail," Slate asked Paul Collins to plot out the real history of the form.
"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 nine 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. ... 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."
Unlike the unfortunate Zorin Barrachilli, the chain letter lives on. If that 1974 sample from an online archive of chain letters sounds familiar, it's probably thanks to generations of e-mail and photocopying. But the real origin of the letter wasn't the Netherlands: Like any truly great crooked scheme, it began in Chicago.
It was there in 1888 that one of the earliest known chain letters came from a Methodist academy for women missionaries. Up to its eyes in debt, that summer the Chicago Training School hit upon the notion of the "peripatetic contribution box"—a missive which, in one founder's words, suggested that "each one receiving the letter would send us a dime and make three copies of the letter asking three friends to do the same thing."
The chain letter had been born.
The "peripatetic contribution box" was seized upon in Britain as a weapon against, of all people, Jack the Ripper. That November, the Bishop of Bedford oversaw a "snowball collection" to fund the Home for Destitute Women in Whitechapel, where crimes against prostitutes were raising an outcry for charitable relief. The Bishop's snowball worked: Indeed, it worked diabolically well. It snowballed, so that along with 16,000 correctly addressed letters a week burying the hapless originator, garbled variants of the return address also piled upon the Bishop of Bangor—as well as Bradford and Brighton.
During the 1890s, chain-letter fundraising proliferated for everything from a bike path in Michigan to a consumptive railroad telegrapher; by July 1898, the New York World was preprinting chain letter forms to fundraise for a memorial for Spanish-American War soldiers. ("Do not break the chain which will result in honoring the memory of the men who sacrificed their lives," it chided.) Upon seeing what the World's proprietor had wrought, his rivals at the New York Sun were blunt in their assessment: "Pulitzer is insane."
They had good reason to scoff. Earlier that year, a 17-year-old Red Cross volunteer in Long Island, Natalie Schenck, had contrived a chain to provide ice for troops in Cuba, causing 3,500 letters at a time to pour into the tiny post office of Babylon, N.Y. "We did not consider what patriotic Americans are capable of," the girl's mother fretted to the press.
Chains had taken on a life of their own: Along with loopy "bad luck" and "good luck" imprecations to recipients, conmen used them to raise money for, among other things, a fictitious charity case in Las Vegas. But the best cons, as always, played on greed: Schemes like the "Self Help Mutual Advance Society" of London combined the exponential growth of chain letters with a pyramid-scheme payment structure. Recipients were now told to mail dimes to previous senders while adding their name to a list that, enough links later, would bring the coins of subsequent generations showering down on them. One American chain-grifter was promptly immortalized in 1896 with the Chicago Tribune's sardonic headline: PLANS TO BECOME A TRILLIONAIRE.