Listen in the Dark, It's More Fun That Way!
Oct. 10, 2022

Terrifying & True | History of Chain Letters - Share or DIE!

Terrifying & True | History of Chain Letters - Share or DIE!

Share or die. Forward this to 10 friends for good luck and prosperity. Something evil is lurking in our neighborhoods, PLEASE SHARE WITH YOUR FRIENDS. Where did these messages come from? Who sends them? When did they start? Why are Chain Letters so...

Share or die. Forward this to 10 friends for good luck and prosperity. Something evil is lurking in our neighborhoods, PLEASE SHARE WITH YOUR FRIENDS. Where did these messages come from? Who sends them? When did they start? Why are Chain Letters so common?

We are telling that story today, on Terrifying & True

Support us on Patreon

Contact Us/Submit a Story

Original Theme by Ray Mattis

Music by AudioBlocks

Produced by Daniel Wilder

Executive Producer Rob Fields

Find everything at:


Share or DIE!


Share or die. This message has been cursed. Once you open it, you must send it. Forward this to at least ten of your friends for good fortune. These are just a few of the messages you’ve likely received or scrolled past online. They are vastly common, and come in various topics, with either of two specific incentives: too good to be true results, or tremendously horrific consequences, nothing in between. 


As you’re hearing this, you’re likely thinking you would never fall victim to such ridiculous messages. However, there’s a reason you still see them today:  people are continuing to forward them. 


These fall into the categories of people in desperate need of hope and prosperity, those who are easily persuaded and credulous, or those who think to themselves “might as well, what could it hurt?” 


These spam messages are more commonly referred to as chain letters and, though it might seem as if the internet fabricated them, it’s believed they began hundreds of years ago, hence the use of the word ‘letters.’


When it comes to the origin of the chain letter, many historians place it near the end of the first century, over 2,000 years ago. It’s believed the letter came from no less a person than Jesus, himself, in heaven. 


Fifty-five years after he had been resurrected and sent to heaven, a young boy found a letter beneath a rock. The letter was then copied and circulated for hundreds of years to follow, bearing the same strange warning: 


“He that copieth this letter shall be blessed of me. He that does not shall be cursed.” 


Whether or not the letter actually came from Jesus in heaven, it grabbed people's attention. Copies of the letter survive from as early as 1795, proving that chain letters tug at people’s superstitions and innate curiosity. The chance of receiving awful luck, being cursed, or even dying isn’t worth the risk. Copying a letter settles superstitious minds. If there’s a possibility of prosperity or religious enlightenment just by forwarding a message, humans are all for it. 


In the year 1888, chain letters resurfaced. A Methodist academy for women missionaries was struggling to financially support the business; they were up to their eyes in debt. The group leaders prayed for assistance from God, but they also knew they were desperate to try anything. 


A woman who had heard of their troubles offered a possible solution. If they could arrange a chain letter asking for small donations, they could quickly dig their way out of debt. 


Lucy Meyer, the head of the congregation, took this advice earnestly and created a letter that contained a solicitation to send just one dime, and then send a copy of the letter to three friends. The goal was that the recipients would continue this chain and the dimes would quickly multiply. 


Lucy mailed off 1,500 copies of the letter and patiently waited. Likely doubtful of the scheme, she was surprised when responses began pouring in. Through the donations, the academy eventually raised $6,000, with many recipients sending much more than a dime. Many others also used the letter as inspiration to join the missionaries. The chain letters seemed to be a huge success. 


However, a few complained of being targeted numerous times. They felt exasperated, and rather than discarding the letters, they wrote back criticizing the ordeal and even making accusations that the academy seemed to have an abundance of money already. 


The missionaries named the chain letter a “peripatetic contribution box,” like a donation bin or a postal hat-passing. They quickly grew in popularity and hundreds of other organizations and businesses began using them. 


The contribution box was seized upon in Britain that same year, in 1888, as a weapon against the infamous Jack the Ripper. The unknown assailant was terrorizing London, specifically targeting and brutally murdering prostitutes in the impoverished district of Whitechapel. The area offered a breeding ground for violent crimes and poor behavioral habits. 


In November of 1888, a woman named Mrs. Campbell oversaw a “snowball collection” to aid the Bishop of Bedford in funding a Home for Destitute Women in Whitechapel. 


The chain letter requested donations along with writing two copies, then adding your name and address at the end of each. The three letters were to be mailed to Mrs. Campbell, Brook Villa, Bedford until there were 14 names and addresses listed. If anyone couldn’t continue the chain, they were asked to mail the letter to their Returned Letter Office, so they knew where the chain had been broken. If the instructions were followed, 400 pounds would have been collected. 


However, early in the sequence, an ingenuous lady accidentally changed the number of times for it to multiply from 14 to 140, then another changed it from 140 to 1,400, then to 14,000. Rather than the abundance of money going solely to Mrs. Campbell, though, many other recipients accidentally mailed the letters to the Bishop of Brighton and the Bishop of Bradford instead of Bedford. 


Mrs. Campbell left the area for Scotland, but the letters continued to follow her. As late as April of 1889, she was receiving 16,000 letters a week. Messages were printed in newspapers asking to stop the flow.  However, it only continued snowballing. 


A new variant arose with Dr. Campbell from the Bishop of Bangor receiving thousands of donations. Meanwhile, Mrs. Campbell was also receiving an overwhelming amount of letters from people wanting to know if the appeal was genuine or just a scam. 


Many other attempts were made to stop the snowball of letters, but it’s unclear when it truly ended. 


Chain-letter fundraising was used for an array of things in the 1890s including to raise money for a bicycle path in Michigan. 


By 1898, the New York World newspaper printed chain letter forms to raise money for a Spanish-American War soldiers memorial. It read, “Do not break the chain, which will result in honoring the memory of the men who sacrificed their lives.” 


Chain letters had grown incredibly popular and soon caught the eye of a conman who used them for a fictitious charity case in Las Vegas. Soon, the growth of chain letters with a pyramid scheme payment developed. Recipients were asked to mail dimes to previous senders, removing the top name, and adding theirs to the bottom; chalked up as a “get rich quick” deal. 


After these circulated throughout the U.S and Great Britain, the U.S Postal Service had seen enough. They declared the “dime letter” chains a violation of lottery laws.  


Chain letters never went away, though. During World War l, they were used by pro-German Americans to send a substantial sum to Field Marshal Hindenburg. In 1917, the New York Times reported them as being a “German plot to clog the United States mails.”


The most devious scheme was the “Circle of Gold” chain letter in 1978. It began in the San Francisco Bay area and completed its own circle around the country. Unlike the other letters, and to avoid postal enforcements, it was passed around hand-to-hand at parties or small groups. The only time the postal service was used was when members would send the money to the top name. 


As a participant, one would put up $100, then would pay the seller $50, and mail the other $50 to the top name on the list of 12 in the letter. After this, the participant would put their name at the bottom of the list and sell the letter to someone else who agreed to the same financial transaction. 


Some people were reported to have received up to $30,000, while others received no money and were $100 in the hole. It circled the country from San Francisco  to New York City, to down south in North Carolina, before heading back west towards Texas, and then California. It was even reported having landed in Hawaii, all through hand deliveries. The originators of the “Circle of Gold” scheme were never prosecuted. 


While that chain letter system traveled the country, it didn't quite beat the craze of 1935. After the Great Depression, Americans reverted to the fascination with the “dime letters.” Springfield, Missourians created a plan of chain letter stores. Beauty shops sold the letters to their customers while administering facials and haircuts. A few residents in Springfield even attempted a drunk chain, doubling their crowd in size with each round of highballs at a new bar. The originators hazily tried to figure out how long it would take to get the entire city of Springfield drunk. In the end, though, they all passed out before completing their calculations. 


A few weeks later, the chain letter market crashed and chain letter brokers fled town with thousands of dollars. A Springfield newspaper wrote, “Sad-faced men and women walked around in a daze tonight, seeking vainly for someone to buy their chain letters.” In July of 1935, the U.S Postal Service was left between 2 million to 3 million letters in the dead letter offices. 


In the 1990s, just before email and the internet replaced physical letters, one of the most bizarre chain letters surfaced from an unknown source. It stated, 


"Send one pair of pretty underwear of your choice to the person listed below, and send a copy of this letter to six friends…If you can't do this in seven days, please notify me because it isn't fair to those who have participated…You will receive 36 pairs of pretty panties!"


Although this seemed outlandish, the circulation of this chain thrived. The Baltimore Sun reported several happy enrollees who were mailed many pairs of underwear every week. 


Chain Letters on the Internet

Today, chain letters are rarely sent through the mail and are often referred to as chain emails or spam posts and messages. However, they’re much more common today, due to unlimited chain letter resources and unlimited mailbox space. 


They’re sent to a vast number of people and many times are just used to amuse recipients. Late in the 20th century, emails were the go-to for chain letters. But throughout the years, it’s changed from emails to MySpace to Facebook and many other platforms. Many people who create them are just looking for likes, comments, and reshares on their social media to gain larger followings. 


However, con artists lurk behind the screens, tugging at people’s morality and trusting personalities. Spammers may use chain letters to collect new email addresses to send advertisements for their products or services. Others are much worse, asking the recipient to donate money for a charity, but the money actually just ends up in the sender's accounts. 


Identity theft is also a great concern among chain letters, people’s personal data can be taken and used to perform illicit actions on the recipient's behalf. Both internet and physical security can also be threatened. 


So why do people fall for chain letters? It’s because they leverage human emotions and empathy. Children needing money for expensive operations, petitions for a social cause, or any other charity cases. Monetary rewards are often used to pique the interest of those who are in desperate need of financial help. Scammers lure them with get-rich-quickly pyramid schemes and promise certain amounts of money for each new recipient added to the chain. 


They also play into people’s fear by warning them of a threat to their phones or computers, urging them to strengthen their internet security. Or they can make you fear severe consequences, by threatening bad luck and death if the recipient doesn’t do as they say. They often contained testimonials that detailed the name of the past recipient who either followed the instructions and were met with great fortune, or didn’t follow the instructions and were immediately struck by a bus or died some horrific death. 


The original chain letter, dating back to the very first century, isn’t far off from what we see online today. The originator warning of a curse to those who do not ‘copieth’ and forward. And many chain letters, messages, and posts are still used for religious enlightenment and genuine, harmless prosperity. 


However, it’s the perfect market for fraudsters and con artists to thrive in. You might not believe in being cursed or facing violent consequences if you don’t abide and follow instructions, but almost everyone has shared a humorous chain post or just simply shared thinking: “why not?” or “might as well, what could it hurt?” exasperating the hundreds of more recipients to follow. 


And perhaps leaving others to wonder…what if?