Dear Wise Chuck,

I still seem to get one of those chain letters every so often that tells me to make 20 copies and send them to friends. It says I will have good luck if I do, but something bad will happen to me or someone I know if I do not. I am not usually a superstitious person, but the letter has me a little concerned. What should I do?


Palo Alto, CA



Dear Lucky,

I can find no scientific evidence to prove that complying with the letter’s demands will bring you unprecedented good fortune and failure to respond will trigger some calamity that once set in motion will be both life-threatening and sadly unstoppable.

Yet you, like many people, may wrongly fear that a simple, white sheet of paper containing faded text holds the power to influence random events in your future, and will somehow know whether you have followed its directives or ignored them. It is not enough that you will receive good luck if you dutifully forward the letter on its non-stop journey from continent-to-continent, but misfortune, agonizing disease, and fatality caused by this vengeful missive will surely befall you without notice if you refuse or forget. The curse you activate will not only be one you or an innocent loved one may suffer in this lifetime, but will be the kind of tenacious anguish that you will drag with you well into the afterlife. And why not be severely punished, since the letter implies that you will be the very first person since its inception to break the heretofore uninterrupted chain? Don’t say the letter didn’t warn you.

For as long as I can remember, I have received these letters promising karma-altering results, usually sent to me by people who know me just well enough to be able to find my mailing address. Most of my close friends have at one time or another opened envelops in disgust to find one of these messages inside. None that I know has ever bothered to send out a single reply, and I can happily report that most of them are still alive.

The majority of chain letters are identical. After telling you that “This is no joke!”, the dispatch informs you that its sender has singled you and very select group of 19 others out to be the beneficiary of a lifetime of joyous providence, and all you need to do to turn on the taps of good fortune is to drop whatever you are doing at this very moment, drive to a Kinko’s, wait in line for the 20 photocopies you must make, return home, then find the addresses of 20 people who you do not like well enough to care if they will be annoyed after you send them one of the copies, stuff the letters into the envelopes, address them, then spend $7.40 on postage to get them out of your hands before the curse activates.

Since each of the sender's 20 addressees are required to send 20 copies to their friends who will in turn be instructed to do the same, the letter will exponentially multiply and soon blanket the surface of the earth, and only after every living literate creature on the planet has received a copy, can the unceasing global travel of this missive finally end.

Chain letters generally arrive stuffed inside smaller-than-business-sized white envelops, with no return address, with yours hand printed on the front, and with two or three postage stamps that add up to just over 37 cents adhered to the top right corner, clues that clearly indicate that the letter probably did not come from American Express. Inside, folded in eighths, is a barely readable single page, photocopied so many generations that the words are fuzzy and faint. You assume, and rightly so, that the original was typed decades ago on a very old, manual Underwood typewriter by a person who actually thought receive was spelled “recieve.” The letter looks much like a ransom note, and once you think about the certain and impending misfortune and evil that failure to comply will bring, you realize this IS a ransom note.

By the time you innocently unfold the message and realize what it is, it is too late, and the clock starts counting down the 96 hours you have to move the letter’s Xeroxed offspring to 20 unsuspecting acquaintances, who have been quite lucky in their lives so far, having until that point, never received a chain letter.

Each correspondence starts the same way, reminding you that it was mailed to you by a caring and sensitive person who is doing so selflessly in order to provide you, a person who is also loved and respected, with unsolicited good luck. You look at the name of the sender at the bottom of the letter and know that this person cares neither about you nor what kind of luck you do or do not enjoy, and in fact, you are on this person’s list of 20 because you were one of the distant people that finally came to mind when the sender got stuck on name 17.

The letter goes onto say that it has traveled the world many times, having been written by a missionary with a little time on his hands. It reminds you again that it is not a joke, which you already know, since a joke is typically (1) funny, and (2) not about to cost you about ten dollars in postage and photocopy costs and trips to a Kinko's and the post office..

You are to send no cash, but you must send exact copies to 20 people whom you theoretically love and respect and pray will enjoy a lifetime filled with blessings and prosperity, which will surely occur only because of the actions you ar eabout to perform. You have but four days to comply, so you must not dillydally, the passage sternly reminds, because the consequences are rather ominous, both by preventing your 20 friends from having any chance for a future filled with good luck, and by dooming you and your immediate family to a life of Hell, poverty, and quite possibly, public evisceration.

If you do not believe there are powers imbedded in this correspondence, you may well be convinced when you read on, learning the fate of those people who broke the chain and lost all their money, and of others who obediently maintained the uninterrupted circuitry of the letter and received a lot of money, in many cases from the unlucky people above who lost it.

The letter convincingly speaks of:

· An army Lieutenant in the Philippines who ignored the letter, and sadly four days later, his wife died. He left the graveside, racked by guilt, and sent out the belated copies, and while his wife remained quite dead, he was eventually promoted to Captain and met a woman in a bar whom he kind of liked.

· A business man named Constantine who asked his secretary to make 20 copies. She did not send them. He won the state lottery 4 days later, but never saw a penny of it because his secretary did not tell him and quietly claimed the prize instead.

· Another man, who in 1978, received a letter and sent out copies within the requisite 4 days. As luck would have it, he would go through the remainder of his life and never meet anyone from Dallas, therefore having no reason ever to fly there, and as a result, would miraculously NOT be a passenger on the ill-fated Delta flight 191 that crashed there in August of 1985.

· A woman from Nebraska, who after returning from mailing off the 20th letter, sat down to rest on her sofa and found more than six dollars in loose coins under the cushions.

· The 97 year old man, too feeble to address envelopes, who broke the chain and would die in his sleep within the year.

The chain letters regales the reader with stories about new jobs, found money, long life for the obedient, and homelessness and renal failure for those who were not. Current chains will also have you consider the fate of the felonious WorldCom ex-CEO Bernard Ebbers, now serving 25 years to life, who allegedly poopooed the chain because he thought it was “silly” and “beneath” him.

A variation of the traditional letter frames the story of a sick child who asks recipients to save his life by unleasing the power of the chain.

“My name is Jimmy,” the letter explains, “and I have a disease called Carso-Palomino, a degenerative muscular disease indicated by second stage symptoms that include fainting and diarrhea, and while inconvenient, neither of them is such a big deal on its own, but sadly do produce rather unfortunate consequences when suffered together. Even though I am only 7, I am going to die soon, that is unless each of you send me a Get Well card and forward this letter to others who must do the same”

Because he is very sick, the upper limit of 20 is suspended, and to keep this child off a ventilator, you will need to contact every acquaintance you have ever had.

“Unless you do this for me,” the last paragraph pleads, “I am a goner. If you are too busy or forget, the blood of a tiny 2nd grader will forever be on your hands.”

Like the standard chain mail, many of these terminal child letters conclude with the not-too-subtle threat, “If you ignore this simple request, you will ultimately get yours.” Fearing that you may wake up exactly 97 hours from now, just like Jimmy, in a pool of your own waste, you obey.

While all of these stories sound convincing and might scare you into buying a box of #10 envelopes, there is no empirical evidence that your life will change in any way by sending or not sending off copies. A National Academy of Science study conducted at Stanford University in 1992 concluded that the rather large incidence of people ignoring the letter and subsequently being killed by coyotes was purely coincidental. Follow up studies in Europe confirmed that no piece of paper sitting open on a desk can remotely influence lottery numbers, no matter how hard it tries.

Further, these overly excitable mailings fail to disclose other evidence that clearly belie their claims, for instance that in 1944, the charismatic army colonel Juan Peron broke the chain, yet 48 hours later, he was still lucky enough to seize control of the entirety of Argentina AND have unbridled sex with the fetching Eva Duarte that selfsame evening. Likewise in the 1950s, more than 35,000 school children dutifully complied with the terms of the message, yet within a few years, many of them would come down with polio anyway.

There are documented cases of people who broke the chain, yet continued to live long and fruitful lives, without arrest for a crime they did not commit or without losing a job held for many years to someone younger who was the nephew of the owner. I could go on and on.

Even if the letter does contain a modicum of truth, I do not want to send copies to anyone know, first, because I am convinced they would be disgusted by the inconvenience, and while none may say anything to my face, I would henceforth be invited to very few dinner parties, but very well might be the topic of unkind conversation behind my back at those gatherings where my presence would be noticable. Moreover, since many of my friends are far luckier than I am to begin with, I would feel quite envious if any became any more fortunate. I would, based on my own shallow persona, become visibly and pathologically jealous, racked by bouts of unrelenting pettiness, and soon, I would begin to wish onto these miserable bastards, a lifetime marked by financial and medical woe.

While I have heard that the chain letter goes back to the Middle Ages, I do not know its actual origin. I have, however, often thought the concept was a more recent invention, the brilliant ploy of the United States Postal Service, in an attempt to drive slumping stamp sales and keep its carriers employed.

Today, chain letters flourish more than ever before, fueled by the Internet and a technology that permits mass mailings to 20, 200 or 200 million with a single keystroke. If the goal of a chain letter is to have it travel around the globe, you can now accomplish your mission by the end of the afternoon.

Chain letters will remain with us forever, and in your lifetime, you will no doubt receive many more. If you are only a little superstitious, perhaps you might consider sending out only 10 copies, but in doing so must be content with winning only half of the lottery, or instead of contracting a terminal disease, be OK just getting a disease that is not fatal but may be expensive to treat. 

Rather than embarrass yourself or anger friends, people with whom you once had an intimate relationship, or medical professional whom you want to keep at the ready to prescribe mood balancing medications when you fancy them, you might try other tactics, for instance, sending all of the copies to the same person, since the letter does not outright forbid it. Better still, you might consider mailing all the copies to the person who sent it to you, now making the sender responsible for 400 replies. If all 20 recipients did the same thing, the sender would be have to mail out 8000 new letters, a task made even harder because there will be less than 96 hours to do it. I may forgo the paper response altogether, emailing copies to all those who daily choke my inbox with spam mailings promising me fake Rolex watches, discount pharmaceuticals from Pakistan, and genital enhancement.

Again, unless you are pathologically superstitious, you know that a badly photocopied letter holds no sway over your destiny, and to think it does is folly. You may live a life unscathed, with no more or less luck than you would otherwise enjoy, whether you waste your time forwarding copies or not. 

Though if you are buying a lottery ticket or are planning to fly anywhere soon, especially Dallas, what could it hurt to send 20 copies on?

I hope this helps.