Folklore in the public sphere

Money talks: folklore in the public sphere

Stephen Gencarella Olbrys


This article examines “currency chains”–messages and petitions written on paper money–as folkloric expressions and rhetorical acts that critique or commend dominant American public discourse. After a general description of currency chains, it considers two categories in detail. First is the “St. Lazarus” variety that flourished in the United States in the late 1990s, having migrated from Europe. Second are political money chains that engage with a social or political order, often in protest. This article observes the condemnation of currency chains as an irrational phenomenon, and regards them as viable means for often marginalised groups to foster participation in a public sphere.


One day in November 1997, a student handed me a dollar bill and asked “Is this folklore?” He pointed to a hand-written message spanning the border, with the word “receives” misspelled:

St. Lazarus whoever [recieves] this bill will be blessed with a lot

of money if they write the same on ten other bills

I exchanged his dollar for another and kept watch for others. In early 2004, I acquired my one hundred and fifty-sixth example, a collection upon which this paper is based. [1]

This essay examines “currency chains,” the brief, often repetitive and sometimes extremely witty statements written on paper money. [2] As a folkloric phenomenon, they offer a rich source for analysis of both the transmission of traditional beliefs and the performance of political discourse. Akin to stand-up routines (Pershing 1991), new age products (Lau 2000), broadsides (Preston and Preston 1995), or college basketball games (Carbaugh 1996), currency chains are easily-overlooked forms of public participation and function as artistic strategies for identification with a variety of causes. The messages on them represent popular and not-so-popular opinions about citizenship, faith, entertainment, and the root of all evil in a world predicated on corporate interests and mechanical reproduction. [3] They similarly raise awareness of community in a global economy. [4] As an avenue of critique, admonition, or commendation, these expressive acts negotiate relations of power–or as one rubberstamped bill asserts: “MONEY TALKS!”

I consider two kinds of currency chains in this paper. The first are “St. Lazarus chains,” petitions for money that flourished in the United States in the late 1990s. The second are “political money chains,” forms that are generally employed to advance or critique a particular ideological cause. I begin with a discussion of currency chains as an expression of folklore, the full appreciation of which requires attention to both the text and transmission, via the historic-geographic method, and the socio-political motives and effects via performance analysis.

General Characteristics of Currency Chains

Chain messages–and in particular their expression in chain letters–have long interested folklorists. The earliest scholarly reports of chain letters date to the first decade of the twentieth century and arise periodically. [5] The phenomenon knows no borders, and may stretch as far back as the medieval tradition of “Letters from Heaven” or perhaps even antiquity, in which letters presumably sent from the gods Hermes or Asklepios offered curative properties to their owners (Le Quellec 1995). Relatively few studies have, however, examined the specific tradition of chains written on money. Fabio Mugnaini (1994) offers the most complete analysis in his examination of more than a dozen categories of messages written on several hundred Italian bank notes. These messages range from highly idiosyncratic insults involving the St Anthony versions that raged in the early 1990s, for which latter category he examined seventy examples. Following Mauss, he postulates the importance of bank notes as a social rather than a simply physical phenomenon, one that aims “for immediate and automatic perception” (Mugnaini 1994, 64). Indeed, currency chains are more than objects. They are opportunities to express allegiance, to play with language, and to present, challenge, and resist value judgements. We may identify three general characteristics of their performative nature. [6]

Firstly, currency chains are characterised by the way in which they hide their nature as explicit performances. They seem like closed texts because they appear in a physically bounded space, a literal frame. The person who encounters one probably does not witness the prior entextualisation process, the actual handwriting or rubber-stamping on the bill. This does not deny the audience’s role in co-performance, however, because the recipient may imagine a hypothetical performer, [7] or continue the chain, [8] or respond to the message. Although direct response is infrequent, five of the one hundred and fifty-six Lazarus bills in my collection display it. Two “correct” the invocation by noting “God blesses” (nos. 82 and 130), one dismisses the claim (“What a Crock!,” on no. 48), and one corrects the misspelling of “recieves” (no. 148). The fifth example (no. 127) bears two responses in different ink: a dismissal (“yeh; right [me]”) and an appreciation (“Sure Thing! Thank You!”).

The appearance of a closed text underscores the performer’s anonymity, and thereby reduces opportunities to struggle over the performance’s meaning in its emergent context. This absence of face-to-face interaction functions as a low-key disclaimer of performance (Bauman 1993) and allows for expression of opinion with relative impunity. It may inoculate the performer from the risk of seeming off-beat, especially if the opinions do not conform to “rational” standards. Anonymity also implies a much larger community supporting the individual performer. The number of active participants in currency chains cannot be known with certainty. One bill may speak for thousands. Rubber-stamped “Farm Dollars,” “Gay Money,” “Logger’s Money,” “Atheist Money,” or “GUN OWNERS” money, for example, make ambiguous the size of a presumed minority and suggest a legion deserving notice.

The limited space for reaction to a chain’s message creates the illusion of a completed text. A seemingly closed text fosters an aura of authority. When coupled with anonymity its voice aims “to enjoin individuals to accept responsibility for their conduct by reference to some asserted social or ethical value” (Hermer and Hunt 1996). And by calling upon no particular audience, these acts summon all possible audiences. They materialise what Bakhtin (1986, 126) calls the superaddressee, the ideal sympathetic audience, the possible audience. The currency chain’s trick, then, is an invitation to identify with this possibility and recreate the exchange between the voice of authority and an ideal audience through a particular and situated act in the world of contingencies.

Secondly, currency chains demonstrate the heuretic nature of performance: performances encourage further performances. [9] The premise of currency chains is a petition for reproduction and for action, often of religious or political nature. One sample in my collection, for example, circumnavigates the bill’s entire frame:

Divine Power For Living A Happy Good New Life of Heaven on

Earth w Love

Answer to Lonliness

Feed the Hungry ProLife-Psalm 139:13 Shelter the Homeless

Friendship Restored

Another message surrounds the “In God We Trust” printed on the note.

Jesus is Alive Look

His Kingdom as in You–New Way

Like “John 3:16” signs at public events, this bill encourages people to consult the Bible, and specifically a psalm cited as evidence against abortion. [10] It cushions a politically contentious opinion within a litany of charitable actions and thus attempts to establish a “community” of value judgements. And whether they herald scripture or an Internet community, currency chains invite recipients to participate in a social world. They are acts of constitutive rhetoric (Charland 1987); they seek to “carve out an audience” (Burke 1969, 64) from a broad span of candidates with differing ideological commitments.

This does not mean that all currency chains are merely imitations of a previous performance. Some evince personal expression without direct petition for action, especially when they involve emotional attachments, as in the example in which the front border contains a message:

u [love] Me 2 lovers +2 Gether = 4 Ever [love] I [love] U

The frame around Washington continues:

James [love]’s Beth I [love] U Beth [love]’s James

And the back frame concludes:

James [love]’s Me James-N-Beth Beth [love] U I [love] James

Beth [love] James

James [love]’s Me I [love] Him

The bill technically remains anonymous since it provides no last names, but nevertheless reveals a unique medium to engage interpersonal relationships.

Similarly, one Lazarus chain in my collection (no. 32), from Bloomington, Indiana, may have inspired a scene for self-expression. A saint’s invocation appeared on one side of the bill. On the other side was the following message in a different hand:



The Japanese ideograph for dama, “coin money,” follows the word. While it is indeterminable which message was inscribed first, one presents a more traditional and one a more individualised promise to search out wealth. Together they suggest that one influenced the creation of the other. And while these intensely personal displays may be overdramatic, they remain poignant summations of complex situations–love and self-expression.

Thirdly, currency chains are tangible occasions for variation in performance. They demonstrate ingenuity at work–and at play. They are innovative uses of space for controversial acts such as proselytising or protesting. They also can be witty or ironic, the success of which requires some aesthetic risk with social boundaries. One Lazarus chain (no. 43), for example, demands that “Whoever gets this dollar must write this message on 21 more dollar bills or you will die.” A sincere or jocular tone cannot be verified from the words alone. This instability and uncertainty makes it all the more interesting as a social phenomenon that refuses to commit to a single interpretive frame. Another bill celebrates Howard Stern, the seemingly indefatigable picador of mainstream values. Still another provides a telephone number for a “prostitute” identified by name. In a more humorous tone, an example collected in southern Rhode Island warns:

If you receive this bill you will be cursed by the luck of the Irish! God help you.

Responses to the original message also provide opportunities for recalibrating its meaning. One example of Marijuana Money in my collection originally read:

This bill is a stoner bill. You may only buy weed with this bill! OR ELSE!:

A recipient covered two words with different ink, so the bill actually commands “You may weed with this bill!” Although a simple manoeuvre, switching noun to verb, this example indulges the capacity to play with language simply for the sake of play. Like Duchamp’s Mona Lisa, the sketching of a goatee or “stoner eyes” on George Washington packs a considerable punch to conventional expectations. [11]

Occasionally, bills incorporate other forms of folklore, especially proverbs. One five-dollar bill has several messages written in pencil by the same hand. The front notes:

Brown County Indiana Rocks–Go Eagles!

New Life Community Church

“Jesus [love]’s you” and “Love God!” surrounds Lincoln’s portrait. On the reverse, “Jesus is the light” lies to the left of the Lincoln Memorial. Written around the frame is the proverbial:

If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it is

yours. If it does not it was never meant to be.

On another bill, “THE ROOT to All Evil” spans the right side of Washington’s portrait. Critiques of money appear much less frequently than chains promising wealth, so it is noteworthy that this one employs a proverb, whose own anonymity suggests collective wisdom.

Currency chains display three relations between religion and money: a religious critique of money, a religious petition for money, and a promotion of religion on money. This is hardly an insignificant act, even if it hides the performer’s identity. And since they rely on channels of sociality beyond their immediate context, chains model the idea of proselytising. In some cases they may be abrasive, promoting a rigid isolation of the chosen from the fallen. Usually, however, they offer promise in a welcoming tone, such as the Lazarus variety.

A Chain Letter You Won’t Throw Away: St Lazarus Bills [12]

Between November 1997 and January 2004, I collected one hundred and fifty-six Lazarus chain examples—one hundred and thirty-one from Indiana, all but six of which spring from Bloomington, sixteen from Massachusetts, four from Rhode Island, and one each from California, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. My wife garnered seventy-one of the examples in the collection, in a restaurant she managed from 1997 to 1999; these were years that saw the rise, flourish, and decline of the fad. The year 1998 was a prime one–I gathered eighty-one examples then, and fifty-four in 1999, but only seven in both 1997 and 2000. I found three examples in 2001, one in both 2002 and 2003, and two in 2004. American folklorists first recorded this phenomenon in 1996 (Ellis 1998). By early 1997, chains were well established in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. According to Paolo Toselli (1992), a version flourished in Italy as early as 1992 on the thousand lire note. Mugnaini (1994) and Le Quellec (1995) report similar sightings in northern and central Italy and southern France during that time.

When I discovered a bill (no. 148) in Reston, Virginia, in 2000, the cashier informed me that such bills were regularly presented. This wave did not, however, reach southern Indiana. Thus, while currency chains travel across a nation, and perhaps even the world, they do not diffuse equally with each wave and may unfold as predominantly local fads. But they do travel well when they travel. One example (no. 145) bears the date “10/8/98” in the same handwriting as the Lazarus message, but it did not come into my possession until 20 February 2000. Another (no. 59) even comments on the phenomenon’s folkloric nature (chain letters), noting:

Anyone who receives this bill will be blessed with a lot of money

if they rewrite this on 10–$1.00 bills (chain letters).

Most Lazarus chains appear on the back of the bill. Only twenty in my collection are marked on the front. One-dollar bills are the preferred carrier; I have only eleven examples that are not on singles (seven on a five-dollar bill, three on a ten-dollar bill, and one on a twenty-dollar bill). The most plausible explanation for this preference is the need for access vis-a-vis the instruction to rewrite the chain on bills of the same denomination. Messages that appear on the larger denominations usually do not make this demand. The version on the twenty-dollar bill (no. 35), for example, only asserts:

Whoever recieves this bill will be blessed w money as long as they

copy this ten times St. Ellsa

By appearing on lower denominations, currency chains maintain a greater chance for reproduction.

Lazarus chains are formidable tools for teaching folklore. Anyone who has tried to explain the intellectual transition from the text-oriented historic-geographic method to a performance-oriented approach would do well to draw upon them. On the one hand, the one hundred and fifty-six bills serve as versions of what we might call a “chain type,” and accordingly may be grouped into variants and type sets. Reconstruction of a “Ur-chain” is possible by simple numerical comparisons to determine which word of each element occurs with the highest frequency. [13] This yields:

Anyone who receives this bill will be blessed with a lot of money

if they write this on 10 other bills.

When comparing the ideal reconstruction to the actual versions, however, only one example (no. 108) matches perfectly. Moreover, no two versions are exactly alike, accentuating the contentious nature of variation in performance and the ways a “tradition” does not demand perfect reproduction.

Numerous bills invoke a religious figure–sixty-three address a saint, six mention “God” in some manner, and one cites Queen Tamara, the medieval Georgian monarch. Forty-four of these bills mention Lazarus in some form. [14] Three versions invoke St Elizabeth, two St Francis, and two call upon a “St Nazareth.” St Luke, St Paul, St Jude, and St Mary appear on a single version each. In addition to seventeen spellings of Lazarus, there are seven invocations to seemingly non-sensical names. Placed in an orthographic grid (see Table 1) with “Nazareth,” “Elizabeth” and its variant “Ellsa,” these names demonstrate a fairly consistent distribution.

A compelling argument for the verbal distribution of Lazarus chains emerges if we additionally regard this grid as a phonemic record. These unrecognised saints are not necessarily imperfections of written copies. It is likely that they reveal cases in which people mishear or misinterpret earlier performances. Many of these “mistakes” are easily-explained shifts in the sound system of spoken English (Parker 1986). The first letter of the name, for example, is almost always a voiced sound; the shift between the voiced alveolar liquid /1/ and the voiced palatial liquid/r/is common, as are most other alternatives present here. These variants point to a performer working out names according to phonemic norms in his or her speech community. One example (no. 137) demonstrates the actual process. The author first writes “St. Lazares,” but covers over the final “s” with a “th.” Like orthographic errors in historical documents that reveal how communities spoke in the past, these typical shifts suggest that people talk about the chains and encourage others to re-perform them through verbal as well as written channels. In a case like “Nazareth,” then, there is evidence for a correction based on a very reasonable guess. For while there is no such historical saint, the name is a viable substitution given its importance in Christian belief. This might also explain the relative popularity of substitutes such as “St. Elizabeth,” and perhaps even “St. Francis.” When performers mishear “Lazarus,” they may rely upon saintly equivalents who are systemic to their religious worldview.

Richly interactional, currency chains are far more than a simple penchant for writing on money. They are performances embracing verbal and visual channels of communication that invite audiences to form community for political, religious, or other significant action. The interesting “Queen Tamara” variant highlights this exhortatory function. Although regarded as a generous ruler, Tamara was also known for savagery in war and quickness to act, mocking the hesitant. Shakespeare drew upon this tradition, and a contemporary Georgian proverb asserts that “the lioness is known by her claws, Tamara by her deeds.” [15] Similarly, saints represent model lives for believers; the original meaning of “legend” was a saint’s story. Lazarus chains are apt reminders of the power of such narratives. To act upon their messages is to consubstantiate with the saint, to re-perform her or his sacred story. Chains accordingly are intersections of attitudes, storytelling, and acts. They reclaim a union between word and deed, utterance and action.

The Tamara version creates a more active narrative structure with the addition of “says”: “Queen Tamara says anyone who gets this bill an.” Unfortunately the message is incomplete. Still, even this truncation bids narrative power to organise experience and encourage action. Two more bills (nos. 63 and 137) bear a similar frame: “Lazarus said” and “Lazereth says.” Two others written in the same script (nos. 54 and 55) and discovered on the same day, exhibit the chains’ full narrative potential. The first announces:

I’m soposed [sic] to get a lot of money by sending this to you

On the bottom of the bill runs the cryptic, backwards message:

Money of lot a get will [?] + going [?] if

The second forefronts both direct address–a hailing–and a narrative structure:

I’m sending this to You. I got one + it said if I send this get a

lot of Money your self

The messages are grammatically imperfect, if not incomplete. They may be parodies. But if they are sincere, they suggest that for some the act of writing the chain may be more important than the perfect reproduction of the message. Like the Tamara and the Lazarus “says” versions, these examples locate the recipient within a narrative process.

The choice of Lazarus as patron is another fascinating part of the puzzle. There are two different men by that name in the New Testament, both canonised. John (11:1-44 and 12: 1-11) tells the story of the one from Bethany raised by Jesus from the dead. The second is the poor man at the rich man’s gate in the parable in Luke (16: 19-31). This Lazarus suffers from leprosy. Upon his death angels carry him to Abraham to enjoy an eternal feast. His wealthy counterpart, however, is tormented in the netherworld. He implores Abraham to let Lazarus warn his living family of the wages of sin, but the prophet explains that the unfaithful would not be persuaded even “if someone should rise from the dead.” Hence, both stories tell of a Lazarus who dies and may return, and it is probable that they share a common folkloric origin.

The two saints have long been conflated, especially in iconography. The Lazarus of the parable appears on crutches with dogs licking his leprous sores, a citation from Luke (16: 21). Lazarus of Bethany also appears this way, despite no mention of crutches or dogs in John’s gospel. [16] Major festivals to San Lazaro in El Rincon, Cuba, and in Monimbo, Nicaragua, mix symbols of the two saints (Villar Dille and Mounition 1997). The Iglesia Catedral Rincon de San Lazaro in Hialeah, Florida, a member of the autocephalous Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA), celebrates a blessing of the dogs on 16 December each year in preparation for the saint’s feast the next day. [17] Traditionally, however, the feast for Lazarus of Bethany occurs on 17 December, and the feast for Lazarus of the parable on 21 June. In Santeria, San Lazaro represents Babalu-Aye, the orisha (spirit) of healing, usually depicted as a man on crutches (Gonzales-Wippler 1973). A general correlation exists in these legends, then, between the impoverished, the leprous, and miraculous healing.

This correlation further admits St Elizabeth and St Francis as reasonable substitutes for Lazarus. Complicating matters slightly is the fact that there are several canonised persons under both names. If we take St Francis of Assisi as the likely subject, however, a direct relationship emerges with St Elizabeth of Hungary and her great-niece St Elizabeth of Portugal, both of whom were Franciscan tertiaries. Members of the Franciscan Order take a vow of poverty, a re-performance of the saint’s legendary surrender of his tremendous wealth. Although both St Elizabeths were of European royalty, they personally lived without indulgence and founded several hospitals. Both are patrons of charity, and the former is a protector of beggars and the homeless. The correlation stands, then, between saints who suffer poverty, care for the poor, and tend to the sick or dying; these elements are present in the two legends of Lazarus. It is plausible, then, that a chain performer would draw upon saints whose stories echo those of Lazarus, especially ones whose name resonates so closely.

Another historical connection sheds further light on Lazarus’s patronage. According to Toselli (1992), a similar chain appeared in Italy in the early 1990s. This chain typically petitions recipients to write the message on three different one thousand lire notes or similar small denominations, after which St Anthony will make him “rich” (ricco) or bring him money (soldi). The usual patron is St Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan friar. He is a protector of the poor and worked to abolish debtors’ prisons. He was also known for remarkable oratorical acumen by which he attacked the corruption of the wealthy. But people often equate him with St Antony of Egypt, the fourth-century hermit who founded the first Christian monastery and who is patron of, among others, animals and skin diseases, especially erysipelas, a form of ergot poisoning also called St Anthony’s Fire. [18] Numerous connections thus link St Lazarus, St Anthony, St Francis, and St Elizabeth. [19] They bring together narratives of poverty, suspicion of wealth, terrible skin diseases, animals, and miraculous cures of illness, dying, or death. All of them are popular in European Mediterranean countries, and in North and South American communities with historical ties to those regions either through direct relations or syncretic adaptations, as in the case of Santeria. If the performance of currency chains is as much a question of verbal transmission and remembrance as of copying written messages, it is reasonable to argue that believers would draw upon this narrative complex. Hence, St Elizabeth and St Francis are suitable substitutes for Lazarus, just as Lazarus is a credible substitute for St Anthony.

Given the aforementioned research of Toselli, Mugnaini, and Le Quellec, it seems reasonable to suggest that this tradition’s recent expression began in Italy in the early 1990s when the message from a “St. Anthony de Group” chain letter migrated onto money. Once this practice arrived in the United States a few years later, it fell into contest with a Protestant tradition characteristic of those responses that dismiss saints or make direct appeals to Jesus or “God.” And while Lazarus chains invoke those who rejected wealth and position, the desire for increased revenue fits quite comfortably with a late capitalism filtered through the liberalism of the “American dream,” in which individual success is measured by the accumulation of wealth. Performers and their audiences may argue about the religious commitment of the chains, but rarely do they disagree about the petition for more money. One extremely interesting bill in my collection, however, complicates the pursuit of money through invoking saints (and testifies to the popularity of this practice in Hispanic communities). The following is written on the front of a five-dollar bill in Spanish:

This bill is mine. It belongs to me. Signed, Satan.

And whoever finds it will have bad luck.

Signed, [unclear, but references the genitals]. [20]

Like the example that condemns money as the root of all evil, this one establishes a direct line between wealth, the satanic, and a rhetoric locating the recipient within the narrative process. In so doing, it disillusions money of its power by tying it to a frightening myth. Like other Lazarus chains, it is a complex expression of doxa–politically consequential opinions that impinge upon the creation of a public–unfolding in a relatively simple form. As I argue later, the expression of such opinions within the public sphere is a constituent of robust democracy. Currency chains contribute to that discourse by providing avenues for expression, especially protests in the face of dominant ideology.

Political Money Chains as Rhetorical Strategy

Like graffiti, bumper stickers, posters, and flyers, currency chains entail a strategy of relative anonymity coupled with a quick strike of accessible forms that are difficult to argue with in situ. Simplicity of form and lack of face-to-face interaction does not mitigate the social impact of these performances, however, nor reduce the proclivity of audiences to evaluate their aesthetic qualities. As Lyman Chaffee asserts in his study of graffiti in Paraguay, such acts are an excellent way to register political dissent “by putting a government on notice that anti-system sentiments exist with a definite historical memory” (Chaffee 1989, 40). Currency chains are as valuable as orations or town meetings as attempts to invite others into a social world constituted by a certain set of value judgements.

Political money chains draw attention to specific citizen organisations searching for recognition. Like their religious kin, these bills encourage a re-performance that strengthens a political commitment or advances an ideological reorientation. They usually circulate from groups regarded as marginal or constituting an economic minority. During the 2000 presidential election, for example, supporters of Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan waged an information campaign that included widespread distribution of “Buchanan Bills.” An email posted on 13 April 2000, at the Internet Brigade, the website for the America First! organisation, provides a telling example of the motive surrounding this strategy. [21] The subject header entices “More Ways to Spread Our Message,” and the author first discusses reasons to leave flyers at “every place where men gather to talk politics.” He then continues:

Dont wait until October. Recruit the activists now who will later

work in October. Whenever I leave a dollar or more tip I make sure

they have in red ink along the dollars side facing

up so they equate “buchanan” with “good tip.” Remember the ASTEROID


Its better to start as early as possible if you want to deflect

something. Its like a chain reaction: Recruit people now who will

recruit others. Copies are 5c or less. Compare that to a Starbucks

coffee. Dollar bills last 16-18 months.

I have a hundred out there with in red ink on them.

You can also have a stamp made at any stationery place. Every dollar

bill passes through hundreds of hands. It is legal to put political

messages on dollar bills. The exact law can be found on, a site which follows the movement of bills.

Each person should think about what he can do for his own area on

his own instead of just waiting to be told.

The concern to operate within the law is notable. The legality of this practice is a hotly debated topic among many currency chain performers. The common belief that it is illegal simply to write on money may heighten the performance “risk,” as graffiti artists risk prosecution for their actions. [22] An intense experience of having “risked something” in turn heightens the intensity of the political act itself. In this case, however, the performer wishes to stay within the law. Although perhaps not revolutionary, it indicates the range of possible political commitments in currency chains from the most radical to the most reactionary. And the assumption of a relatively simple psychology of persuasion–good tips equal support for Buchanan–hints at the presumed infectious nature of chains as a constitutive rhetoric, one that invites people into a shared sense of commitment.

This view of persuasion is prevalent among many groups who employ chains in their acts of protest. “Adbusters,” a non-profit activist network that offers critiques of consumer culture, relies upon a similar technique to engage a completely different political agenda. Among other protests, “Adbusters” sponsored the “Fools Fest” campaign on 1 April 2001. This was a loosely organised series of pranks occurring at fifty locations in ten countries. Supporters visited local malls and rained paper money upon shoppers in order to comment on the nature of rampant consumerism. This campaign echoes an earlier one waged by Abbie Hoffman on the New York Stock Exchange trading pit, which brought activities to a halt for several minutes while brokers scrambled to pick up the cash.

Several participants in this event wrote on bills. “Adbusters” did not suggest a unified message, so individuals took to their own creative devices. In San Francisco, for example, one bill admonished: “Think about buying less and giving more. Please give this to a homeless person outside.” At other locations, supporters simply wrote “” A report from a Chicago participant remarks on the chains’ political efficacy:

We hit the Chicago Place Mall and Michigan Ave. On Monday. The

tapes will be in the mail tomorrow. It was a blast. April Fools

Have More Fun. We wrote on all of the dollar bills so that

the message could keep on going even after the day of fools.

Messages like: “Advertising is a drug. Just say no.” “Live more!

Buy less!” “D.A.R.E. to keep kids out of malls.” “This won’t

be worth much in the end.” “What are the environmental costs of what

you’re buying?” “Nike sucks.” “Buck the system.” “This whole thing

is foolish” and “April Fools” among others. I heard that someone

else hit another mall in Chicago. [23]

In a related manner, the anarchist group “Raise the Fist” hosts the “ANTICAPITALIST/US CURRENCY MOVEMENT” at their website. This campaign seeks to “deface” money outright, especially one-dollar bills, with “short and direct” messages such as “Burn Me,” “You Are Not A Slave,” or “You’re Exploited.” [24] The anonymous author of this call to action notes that once money is “defaced” in such a way, a win-win scenario unfolds. The recipient may take the message to heart and rethink a relationship to “the selfish American dream” of increased consumerism or, since most people would rather spend money than destroy it, the message of resistance will continue to filter through the system. Quite unlike the Buchanan Bills that support capitalism and attempt to “cash in” on the backs of greenbacks, messages from “Raise the Fist” intend to devalue “the Almighty Dollar” completely. As they proclaim, the aim is to “give the BEAST a virus,” a notable battle cry.

In my collection there are examples of “Gay Money,” with the additional notice “You received this money from a queer,” and a “Flouride Kills” bill with a rubberstamped skull-and-crossbones. [25] I also have several examples that support the legalisation of marijuana, one of the more popular uses of political money chains. “Marijuana Money” forms range from elaborate depictions of the plant, to an “I Grew Hemp” cartoon dialogue bubble that creates the appearance of Washington speaking directly to the recipient. [26] This latter variant, which establishes a narrative form akin to the addition of “says” on the Lazarus chains, brings together a historical lesson and the particular context of the recipient’s interaction with the bill. It reclaims Washington as a hero for the cause, provides a counter-memory, offers new values for judgement, recognises a situated encounter, and comments on the current legal system and freedom of expression, all in a very small package.

Several forms of political money seek to further atheism as an economic and political solution. Many organisations produce “Atheist Money” rubber-stamps for this purpose. Others simply strike out some part of “In God We Trust” on a bill. Positive Atheism Magazine, an Internet community, presents many debates concerning this practice. Typical questions of legality appear, as well as discussions about the most effective ways to argue for the division of church and state, and the more playful ways to alter the message, including “In GoLd We Trust,” or “In God We rust.” [27] The discussions at Positive Atheism are significant civic enactments that provide insight into how this group addresses fellow citizens and the government. They view atheist chains as a primary political act. They claim that since bold striking out of “God” often prevents the use of bills in ATMs and related mechanical devices, the marked money is taken out of circulation and returned to the Federal Reserve. The argument continues, then, that a high percentage of bills returned under these conditions might persuade the government to change its “archaic” practices. Other discussants proudly volunteer to serve as the legal “test case” if arrested for such actions, convinced that the publicity of the trial would only advance their cause. Still other participants recommend greater emphasis on public education as the key to civil disobedience, and the writing of relatively innocuous messages such as “Religion Off,” for fear that perceptions of vandalism would drive away potential supporters.

These discussants regard their actions as nothing less than defence of free speech and the division of church and state, two key constituents of American democracy that are not always given full due in political arenas. This website also references the Center for Rational Thought, another atheist organisation, in which one activist discusses his fondness for striking out “God” in front of live audiences, often at store registers. [28] The performer does this, he explains, in order to provoke conversations with fellow citizens about his First Amendment right to protest theism. He also remarks that such actions provide a sense of “doing something” political in a world where active participation is disciplined.

The notion of striking out theistic references in the name of particular political liberties is long-established. One example in my collection was given to me by folklorist John Johnson, having been in his possession since 1977. The striking-out in black of “In God We Trust” looms heavily, and the empty edges of the back of this one-dollar bill are lined with the following:

“I don’t believe in god, because I don’t believe in mother

goose.”–Clarence Darrow

God would be the root of evil, if it existed, since it is

supposed to be omnipotent.

“No god. No master.”–Margaret Sanger.

Tax exemptions for religion force unbelievers to subsidize it.

National god mottoes establish theistic religion. These laws

are unconstitutional.

“Religion is bunk.”–Thomas Edison.

Money for people–not god!

It is a bill that reveals much about religious and secular attitudes in American society, especially when read against Lazarus chains that indulge in religious expression for the sake of making money. Whether or not this performance successfully reaches thousands and draws many sympathisers is not the issue. Rather, like other currency chains, it enacts a public site to register belief and disbelief, a place to express opinions in a relatively safe manner without severe condemnation from the dominant system. It advances a political position and invites others to share that vision, and does so in a way that allows the performer a sense of accomplishment, an experience of agency that no doubt admits a certain pleasure.


Folklore, Jay Mechling asserts, “is a tool that empowers the civil sphere in its struggle against the state and the market” (1997, 130-1). He calls for folklorists to “up the stakes” of their research and participate in the discourse concerning the nature and health of liberal democracy, especially under late capitalism. The first step is to seek out practices through which people plead their case. Regardless of what form of “widely shared apparent irrationality” (Hill 2001, 450) it takes, such folklore makes the consequences of contemporary political society very clear. It shows who is marginalised and how people respond to power structures. From this perspective, even easily ignored expressions such as currency chains speak volumes. They are not insignificant, for nothing is insignificant in a regime of ideology, and nothing is innocent.

At a time when many express concern for the collapse of the public sphere, currency chains remind us that all hope is not lost. While their presence may be symptomatic of the lack of what Hannah Arendt (1958) calls “spaces of appearance”–those public places that allow citizens to interact, exchange political opinions, and persuade each other–this does not immediately sentence alternative voices to silence. Quite the contrary, currency chains reveal an innovative reframing of money from an exchange value to a “stage” value, through which performers and audiences may participate in political discourse and compete with other ideological positions. This is not Habermas’s ideal public sphere, of course, but a sincere substitute that demonstrates a longing for an exchange.

Currency chains offer a refreshing counter-statement to the corporate use of money in politics for the colonisation of the public sphere. They are the visual equivalent of a proverb and may provide similar “medicine” (Burke 1973, 293). They embody the rule that brevity is the soul of wit; skilful use of this brevity achieves powerful or disquieting effects. Thus, how well a performer uses the space is as important as what one uses it for. Often performers commingle their message with some element of the bill. During the 2003 Iraq War, for example, a dollar depicted Washington saying “No Blood For Oil!” (Figure 3).


A similar bill exclaimed “REGIME CHANGE STARTS at Home” during the 2004 election. Other examples include the religious admonitions of “You Must Be Born Again,” written above the Lincoln Memorial, or “Jesus is Coming Soon–Are You Ready???” beneath “In God We Trust.” In this way the bill transforms into an icon of a fundamentalist desire for a union of church and state. Balancing message and skilful reproduction, currency chains are serious play–and like all performances of “critical folklore” (Mechling 1997, 131), they are a solid start to political engagement.

Not everyone shares this positive assessment, however. On the forum website for Meme Central, a self-help Internet community dedicated to Richard Brodie’s work on “mind viruses,” one subscriber posted his criticism of currency chains [29]:

I was flipping through my wallet to check my current funds when I

noticed some green writing on a dollar bill. Though writing on a

dollar bill is not uncommon, I thought you’d get a kick out of this

one: The writing starts on the top edge of the dollar and continues

on the bottom edge. The words are as follows: “Anyone who receives

this bill will be blessed with lots of money if you write this on

ten one dollar bills.” Thus we have a dollar-bill virus! And the

scary thing is, though email and other people based viruses

generally don’t pass through me (i.e. I don’t pass them on), since

this is a dollar bill, in general I will still use the dollar to

buy something. So I guess this makes me a ‘carrier’–scary thought.”

Anyway, thought you might get a kick out of that. [30]

The comments here confirm the suspicion that bills serve as a very durable stage for opinions, since recipients are not likely to throw them away, but the general condemnation of currency chains as an irrational phenomenon is striking. It allies the commentator with a strong current in critical theory that defines a vital public sphere through a rational exchange of opinion, or at least an impartial one free from private interests, and ignores the possibilities that performances often labelled “irrational” may still offer very active participation in political judgements as a lived experience. [31] Brodie’s attendant, then, rehearses the time-honoured condemnation of folklore qua folklore, without any consideration of its value beyond utilitarian purposes and profit margins.

According to practitioners of “profit memetics,” the most significant problem with folkloric expressions is their waste of time. They interfere with the efficient pursuit of self-realisation and business rationality. A chain or joke slows down productivity, because like all performances it solicits attention from audiences. If someone participates in the chain, reproduces it, and passes it on, he or she continues the debasement of presumably productive uses of time, the notion of time as money. This perspective simply ignores the potential for chains to serve as resistance to or as a protest against dominant values, or as a front for religious and political ideas in an otherwise inhospitable discourse arena. This ignorance also reveals one of the strongest motivations for attacks upon folklore performances: the reign of an ideology of corporate efficiency and reason. The ritual striking out against folkloric forms is a means to elect oneself a member of the dominant group; disciplining the “insignificant” is a trademark of acquiescence to the corporate colonisation of the lifeworld, the foundation of everyday experience.

Like most folklore practices, currency chains are not models of corporate efficiency. But efficiency is not the hallmark of satisfying public debate and interaction, and may even threaten genuinely healthy democracy (Burke 1968, 114-16). Hence, regardless of what opinion appears on the bill, the very practice of writing currency chains and calling attention to their display may serve as a significant political act that strikes a blow against one group’s domination of the public sphere. The overt call of Raise the Fist to “give the BEAST a virus” is therefore a felicitous coincidence, for it embraces the viral metaphor as a positive value judgement and directly counters corporate instrumental rationality and efficiency. Precisely because of their inefficiency, chains stand against the tendency of the dominant class to equate business profit with psychological and political health. [32] In so doing they argue for a lived, situated, and meaningful experience of the public sphere that widens democratic participation by inviting others to speak. They ask us to rethink the utility of ideal models, and mirror a democracy that necessitates attention to the desires of fellow citizens and the finding of a way to get along despite our differences and our all-too-human vices. This achievement is possible only if it accounts for irrationalities, expressions of marginalised opinions, and playful art forms–in short, all the things in which currency chains indulge. Against the demands for ideal deliberation, these performances remind us of the need for more rhetoric as the cure for a beleaguered public sphere.

The invitation to further performance also has a traditionalising effect. It impinges upon recipients to carry on the sentiment as a sign of shared commitment. This negotiation spans the event of writing and the event of reading and rewriting. To engage this mimetic connection is to indulge in a moment of consubstantiality, a resonation between the recipient and the identity, judgement, or value presented on the bill. Currency chains often expound their motive for reproduction, be it increased revenue or a chance at salvation, and demonstrate money’s potential to become a literal stage for the performance of social identity, public judgement, and a contest of values. They then offer the possibility to nourish democratic discourse, because they draw attention to standards of beauty, traditions and public remembrance, and conflicts of value judgements based upon deeply experienced beliefs, or what Antonio Gramsci calls “the points of view present in life itself” (1985, 141). They propose that the giving of sincere attention to the “insignificant”–whether folklore performances or marginalised people–may prove the best standard of the health of a public sphere.


Thanks to Bill Ellis, Hasan El-Shamy, David Gay, John Johnson, Alan Mays, Mike Preston, and Dan VanArsdale, the two anonymous referees, and all who donated bills to the collection.

References Cited

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Bauman, Richard. “Disclaimers of Performance.” In Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse, eds. Jane Hill, and Judith Irvine 182-96. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Brodie, Richard. Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. New York: Integral Press, 1996.

Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

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–. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Carbaugh, Donal. “The Playful Self: Being a Fan at College Basketball Games.” Situating Selves: The Communication of Social Identities in American Scenes. 39-60. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

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Charland, Maurice. “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Quebecois.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 133-50.

Clark, Frank. “Political Statement Currency.” What’s New in Numismatics? Available from http://; INTERNET (1999).

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Ellis, Bill. “Two Unusual Chain Letters.” Letters to Ambrose Merton 14 (1998): 22-7.

–. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live By. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002.

Godin, Seth. Unleashing the Ideavirus. New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Gonzales-Wippler, Migene. African Magic in Latin America. New York: Julian Press, 1973.

Graham, Laura. “A Public Sphere in Amazonia? The Depersonalized Collaborative Construction of Discourse in Xavante.” American Ethnologist 20, 4 (1993): 717-41.

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Harris, Sheryl. “When Money Talks.” Available from; INTERNET (2001).

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[1] As of this writing (June 2005), my collection includes one hundred and fifty-six versions of the Lazarus chain and sixty-one other marked bills. The numbers in parentheses in this paper refer to this collection. The most extensive online collection is found at a website for the Johnny Burrito restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the owner posts over two hundred and fifty marked bills collected there since 1998 ( uglymoney.htm). In the future I will post the bills at my website ( communication/faculty_and_staff/faculty/stephen_olbrys.shtml)

[2] I borrow “currency chain” from Ellis (1998); see Clark (1999), Harris (2001), and VanArsdale (1998) for alternatives. Coins are used infrequently. My collection has a single example: a penny hollowed through with a cross. The Johnny Burrito website has thirteen examples.

[3] See Alan “Greenpants” ( F_LibertyBucks.shtml).

[4] See for example Where’s George (

[5] Ellis (2003, 78-80) offers a recent discussion of the history of folkloric studies of chain letters, replete with citations. VanArnsdale (1998) offers the most complete historical record of the phenomenon.

[6] See Seery (

[7] Margaret D’Angelis ( comments: “So I try to picture people sitting at their tables, earnestly inscribing legal tender with special words, and then waiting for the benefits promised.”

[8] Some bills, such as “short snorters,” collect lists of names, telephone numbers, or towns (

[9] I adapt the term “heuretic” from Ulmer (1994).

[10] See “The Material History of Religion Project” (

[11] See “Blunted Bucks” (

[12] I borrow the terminology “a chain letter you won’t throw away,” from VanArsdale (pers. corresp.).

[13] For example, seventy three per cent of the bills employ “Anyone” instead of “whoever,” eighty per cent employ “who,” eighty-five per cent employ some version of “receives” instead of “gets,” and so on.

[14] “Lazareth” is a popular alternative, found on eight versions. Others include “Lazereth” (three versions), “Lazarett” (two versions), and one each of “Lasarus,” “Lavreth,” “Lazaro,” “Lezeth”, “Laryareth,” “Lazasus,” “Lazeroth,” “Lzcerth,” “Lazerath,” “Lazarith,” “LsRus,” “Lazurus,” and “Lazazeth.” Ellis (1998) reports “Lazarim”; D’Angelis reports “Lanana”; Mays reports “Lozarath”; and VanArsdale reports “Lazerth.”


[16] f000327Neywick.h; INTERNET.


[18] shows one such conflation; INTERNET.

[19] The seven American families of CACINA include a parish dedicated to Lazarus, St Anthony of Padua, and St Francis of Assisi. A fourth parish, dedicated to St Damian, is in York, Pennsylvania, and a fifth is in Reston, Virginia, two centres for Lazarus chains. CACINA originated in Brazil.

[20] The bill reads: “ESTE ViLLETE ES MiO ME pERTENECE FiRMA SATANAS y AL QUE LO TENGA LE VA Air MAL FiRMA LA iGUE PUTA EdiGnO.” Most of the letters run together. My appreciation to Silvina Berti and Michael Morgan for the translation.


[22] According to Title 18, Sections 333 and 475 of the United States Code, the official crime is to deface bills in order to render them unusable or to change the denomination.



[25] Seery’s website includes protests against President Bush, the WTO, Starbucks, anti-abortion groups, France, and a rubberstamped “Jews for Clinton–Zion Power Rules” hundred-dollar bill. See also the Rubber Stamp Rebellion ( rubber.shtml) and GUN OWNERS money (, which overtly model their campaigns on gay money.

[26] See Honest George (



[29] Brodie’s (1996) work is based on Dawkins (1976), Pimple (1996) draws a correlation between folklore and memes, but Ellis (2003) offers a detailed critique. Many supporters of memetics condemn most folkloric expression, but rumour is regarded for its promotion and marketing purposes. See Gladwell (2002) and Godin (2001) for examples.


[31] See especially Habermas (1989). Graham (1993) and Hauser (1999) offer relevant criticism.

[32] While Lazarus chains’ appeal for money coincides with a desire for profit, they do not support a corporate work ethic.

Biographical Note

Stephen Gencarella Olbrys holds a dual PhD from the Folklore Institute and the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Table 1. Orthographic grid of saints’ names

Lazarus L A Z A R U S

Lazareth L A Z A R E T H

Ldosares LD O S A R E S

Casuas C A S U A S

Cazatth C A Z A TT H

Razereth R A Z E R E T H

Rezeth R E Z E T H

Rogreth R O G R E T H

Zorata Z O R A T A

Nazareth N A Z A R E T H

Elizabeth EL I Z A B E T H

Ellsa ELL S A

COPYRIGHT 2005 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group