The Good Luck of Flanders letter is a classic example from the 1930s. It promised prosperity to all who copied it and sent it on to four other people within 24 hours, and bad luck to those who "broke the chain" by failing to comply. Virtually all chain letters hold out some sort of reward for reproducing them, be it blessings, good luck, money or simply a clear conscience. On the flip side, there may be threats of calamity for failing to circulate the requisite number of copies, e.g., "One person did not pass this letter along and died a week later."
However preposterous their claims, chain letters always attempt to play on the irrational wishes or fears of their recipients — and often succeed. For those especially vulnerable to psychological manipulation, they seem to exude an aura of mystical or quasi-mystical power.
Soliciting money via chain letter is against the law
Chain letters that solicit money are against the law in the United States and many other countries. The U.S. Postal Service deems them illegal "if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants." Because it's tantamount to gambling, sending such letters through the mail ("or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate") violates Title 8, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute," according to the Post Office. Pyramid schemes conducted by chain letter, including some versions of "multi-level marketing," are also against the law.
Chain letters have existed in one form or another since the late 19th century, with precedents dating back almost a thousand years. The Prester John letter, a fictional missive purporting to originate from the ruler of a paradisaical "land of honey and milk" in the East, circulated throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and is regarded as a progenitor of the genre.
Chain letters via email
Without a doubt, the Internet has proven to be the greatest boon to the proliferation of chain letters since photocopy machines. Email messages, which can be forwarded to multiple recipients with the click of a mouse button, are the ideal medium for this type of folklore. Small wonder the Internet is glutted with them. For good or ill (and most experienced users would say ill), chain letters are an online fact of life.
With that have come special variations in chain letter form and content, including the invention of a popular new subgenre: fear-mongering alerts and warnings concerning dangers ranging from criminal activities to health threats. They amount to rumors cast in chain letter format.
Messages of this kind rarely offer substantiating evidence to support their claims and most often, in fact, purvey downright false information. Their true purpose is to provoke fear, and more importantly to spread fear, rather than to inform. Often the texts are mere pranks or hoaxes. People who forward them without validating their content may be credited with naive good intentions, but it's impossible to attribute anything but cynical or self-serving motives to their original — and almost always anonymous — authors.
Returning to our simple definition — a chain letter is a text which advocates its own reproduction — we should note that the typical email chain letter (or "chain email," as it is often called) is different from its traditional forbears in that it may also purport to convey useful information. In this light it is comparable not only to a rumor, but to an old-fashioned handbill, say, or a photocopied flier, which in their day performed a similar function. But because the "information" they contain is almost always false (or unverified at best) and conveyed in an emotionally manipulative way, in the end it remains accurate to say that email chain letters serve no real purpose other than self-replication.
Examples: Variations on traditional forms
• Good Luck of Flanders - Standard "good luck" chain letter
• Dave Rhodes Chain Letter - Make money fast!
• Education in the Cumberlands - Charity chain letter
Examples: Email chain letters
• Craig Shergold - Charity chain letter ("send get-well cards to a dying child")
• Jessica Mydek - Charity chain letter ("money will be donated each time this message is forwarded")
• Applebee's Giveaway - Freebie chain letter ("forward this to receive free merchandise or money")
• New Carjacking Scheme - Fearmongering chain letter (criminal activity)
• Bud Frogs Screensaver - Fearmongering chain letter (computer virus)
• Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer - Fearmongering chain letter (dangerous product)
• Flesh-Eating Bananas - Fearmongering chain letter (contaminated food}