I have a friend who is charming, erudite, and possessed of but one fatal flaw: She loves e-mail forwards. 90 percent of the messages she sends me are chain letters. It's gotten to the point where I think she's trying to foist bad fortune on me -- she can't possibly believe I forward all these missives on to anyone but CSICOP's Chain Letters Anonymous, right? As it stands, I am thisclose to sending her an anonymous message from "Thanks, No".

Anyway, she got me wondering how these things got started in the first place -- who had the bright idea to create an infinite letter loop? The answer, it turns out, would please CSICOP to no end: It was Jesus. According to this absurdly exhaustive history of chain letters:

Apocryphal letters claiming divine origin circulated for centuries in Europe. ... The Letters from Heaven claim to have been written by God or some divine agent. They often command Sabbath observance and promise the bearer magical protection from various misfortunes. The Letters from Heaven do not quite fit our definition of a chain letter since they do not ask that copies be made. However, some did ask the bearer to "publish" the letter, and threatened those who disbelieved. ... Around 1900 shorter and more secular letters appeared that demanded the reader distribute copies. Billions of these "luck chain letters" have circulated since then.

The pyramid-scheme-style letters involving money didn't show up until 1935; that year's "Send-A-Dime" was copied more than a billion times in just a few months. Several copies reached one Mr. Moses Odiaka of Nigeria, who saved up his dimes and now requests your gracious help in transferring them to a safe offshore bank account.