Where do they come from? That’s the million [money-bag emoji] question [smiley face with a dollar sign on its tongue]. They come from a friend who got it from a friend who got it from a friend, which is to say they come from no one. You can find them on Tumblr and Reddit and Twitter, but the person posting them is rarely the person writing them.
I learned this the hard way, after messaging a Reddit user who goes by “Anthologay,” who shared the impeachment-day text in a forum. When I asked him for the origins of the text, he admitted, “I was sent it by some other gay guy lol,” then did not respond to several emails begging him to help me find the source.
As it turned out, the text was originally posted in September of 2019 (very proactive!) to the subreddit r/copypasta, which archives all kinds of copypasta: chunks of text that are meant to be copy-pasted and spread across the web. Then it was reposted to Twitter, then to Tumblr. Once again, I used Reddit’s chat feature to ask a stranger about the origins of a message, and once again, the person confessed, “I’m so sorry, I got it from a friend.”
If it is nearly impossible to say where chain texts come from individually, it is much less difficult to say where they came from generally. The most complete accounting of the history of chain letters was written by an 82-year-old self-described independent researcher from California named Daniel W. VanArsdale, whose archive is a treasure trove of what he calls “amoral chaos” and contains more than 900 letters, dating back to the late 1880s.
“I just thought that it would be interesting to try to figure out what was going on and how [chain letters] worked,” he told me, of a research project that has taken almost half a century and much of his life.
The first chain letters, in VanArsdale’s analysis, were what folklorists sometimes call “heavenly letters,” or, more commonly, Himmelsbrief, a German term. These letters claimed to be authored by God, typically offering divine protection in exchange for proper religious observance. It’s an enduring format: VanArsdale’s archive cites a letter, discovered in Greece, dating back to the third century.
Early letters from heaven urged the reader to “ ‘publish’ the letter,” according to VanArsdale’s reasearch, and until at least the 1960s, many local newspapers did. But by the 20th century, the most popular chain letters “gained more circulation by relying on individual copying.” These letters—paper, sent by mail—were not all that different from the modern chain text. They were short. They were secular. They stated a minimum number of copies that the recipient should distribute. And they included a deadline. Often, they listed consequences for not forwarding them on.
“DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN, for whoever does will have BAD LUCK,” reads a letter from 1922. “Do it within twenty-hour hours and count nine days and you will have some great good fortune.” Others promised that those who forwarded the letter would often win the lottery shortly after. People who didn’t follow the instructions supposedly “lost everything [they] possessed,” or died mysteriously.