Please send $1,562 by return of post

Sixty-five years ago this month, some bright spark in Colorado came up with the idea for one of history's most irritating phenomena: the chain letter.
Click to follow
The Independent US

Many unhappy returns: the chain letter is 65. Among those wishing to break all links with this form of cretinous correspondence is my wife, who once received two death threats at the same time. First a doctor gave her two years to live; then, coincidentally, an anonymous duplicated letter warned that unless she copied it out and sent it to 20 friends, she was nine days away from a sticky end.

The first chain letters began infesting the postal system in April 1935. Bewildered residents of Denver, Colorado found themselves opening envelopes from an unknown sender signed only as "Prosperity Club". The format is now only too familiar but then seemed extraordinary. It contained a list of five names and addresses. It urged the lucky recipients to send a dime (10 cents) to the first name, at the same time copying out and posting the letter to five friends, missing out the top name and adding their own at the bottom of the list.

Even with limited mathematical skills the average Mr John Denver could work out that this promised prosperity in a big way, for an investment of only 10 cents plus the same again in postage. By the time his own name had climbed to the top of the list, he would theoretically be opening 15,625 (5x5x5x5x5) envelopes, each enclosing a dime, making a grand total of $1,562.50.

Practically every household in Denver received at least one chain letter and the post office had to hire 100 extra workers to handle the 165,000 additional items that swamped the sorting offices every day. Having achieved saturation coverage, the chain letters spread rapidly: over 200 hopeful chainees sent their letters to President Roosevelt at the White House.

Unfortunately Mr and Mrs John Denver did not have the sense to work out that if just one of their five friends turned out to be weak links in the chain, their total takings would tumble. The same would apply to their five friends and so on down the line. Naturally enough, there was no news of the full 15,625 envelopes crashing through anyone's letterbox. And even if they had, the scheme would ultimately work only by continuously circulating in the population, with the late entrants being funded by the first winners. Money doesn't grow in chains.

Despite this fundamental flaw, a few Denver folk picked up some extra cash before the chain snapped permanently. The losers had lost a mere 20 cents apiece, which puts them ahead of the vast majority of players in today's lottery. The Prosperity Club's wheeze was succeeded by new chains asking for $1, $10 and even $100 sums. Another scheme, "send-a-pint", involved bottles of Bourbon instead of money. A "knickers" chain scandalised the citizens of Dallas. A dating chain at the University of California would theoretically have provided 6,000 female students with 26,000 men - each.

Some chains have attempted to bypass the postal system. In the Eighties, London yuppies used to meet regularly to hand each other £100, without realising that there must be a catch in it somewhere. The internet is full of junk chain-mail. But it is snail mail which is the most common carrier of these excrutiating epistles.

The only letter I received from my first girlfriend (which was, admittedly, one more that I ever sent her) was rather impersonal: it asked me to send it on to 10 other people, plus 5p for the name at the top of the list. Much more pernicious and pointless are the chains promising nothing but luck - good if you become a link, bad if you don't.

When a doctor was warning that her brain tumour gave her a mere two years' survival, my wife needed a chain letter like - if she will forgive the expression - a hole in the head. But this was exactly the time for some anonymous fool to send her a photocopied text beginning "This letter has been sent to you for good luck." "An RAF officer received £70,000," it continued. The bad news for reluctant chainees was that "Helen Fairchild received this letter, did not do anything about it, threw it away and nine days later she died."

My wife did not do anything about it and nine days later she was still alive. Two years later she is even more alive, confounding the doctor, whose treatment was much more successful than he prophesied.

So much for chain letters. We must stamp them out as follows. Send a photocopy of this article to 20 friends, telling them all to forward it at once to 20 of their friends, who in turn... Good luck.