The Ballad of Rachel Arlington
Date Added: April 11, 2002
When I originally added this chain letter to the BreakTheChain.org hall of shame in 2001, i thought it was just a flash in the pan - another in a long line of e-mail tracking hoaxes that would undoubtedly fade away once people began to understand that what it promises just can't happen. But I guess I underestimated the emotional impact this one would have. Changes to it as it circulates have helped make it one of the most pervasive and troublesome e-mail chain letters to surface since the Internet began.
We'll begin with the simple version that started it all in 2001. In this one, poor Rachel is 10 years old and is suffering from brain cancer:
HI I AM A 29 YEAR OLD FATHER. ME AND MY WIFE HAVE HAD A WONDERFUL LIFE TOGETHER. GOD BLESSED US WITH A CHILD TOO. OUR DAUGHTERS NAME IS RACHEL, AND SHE IS 10 YEARS OLD. NOT LONG AGO DID THE DOCTORS DETECT BRAIN CANCER IN HER LITTLE BODY. THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO SAVE HER. AN OPERATION, SADLY, WE DONT HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO PAY THE PRICE. AOL AND ZDNET HAVE AGREED TO HELP US. THE ONLY WAY THEY CAN HELP US IS THIS WAY, I SEND THIS EMAIL TO YOU AND YOU SEND IT TO OTHER PEOPLE AOL WILL TRACK THIS EMAIL AND COUNT HOW MANY PEOPLE GET IT. EVERY PERSON THAT OPENS THIS EMAIL AND SENDS IT TO AT LEAST 3 PEOPLE WILL GIVE US 32 CENTS. PLEASE HELP US.
In 2002, and for no apparent reason other than to crank up the emotional factor, an anonymous forwarder attached an unrelated, though touching, studio photo of a naked sleeping infant with a blue bow and divine gift tag tied around her. The attachment was initially a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, but was later converted to a more universal .jpg image. In some versions, the text was added directly to the image. It was also at this point that the now prevalent subject, "Leukaemia" (European spelling), was also inexplicably added. Leukemia is a blood cancer. It didn't take long for some forwarders to notice the discrepancy between the age given in the text, and the apparent age of the child in the attached photo. So, someone did what any logical, thinking human being would do: they changed the text to match the image.
Subject: Leukaemia - Please read then Forward
If you delete this ... you seriously don't have a heart.
Hi, I am a 29 year old father. Me and my wife have had a wonderful life together. God blessed us with a child too. Our daughter's name is Rachel, and she is 10 months old.
Not long ago the doctors detected brain cancer and in her little body. There is only one way to save her...an operation. Sadly, we don't have enough money to pay the price. AOL and ZDNET have agreed to help us. The only way they can help us is this way, I send this email to you and you send it to other people. AOL will track this email and count how many people get it.
Every person who opens this email and sends it to at least 3 people will give us 32 cents.
Please help us.
The "blue ribbon baby" versions of the Rachel Arlington hoax continue to be the most popular, but shortly after the text was changed to portray the girl as an infant, another version surfaced. This time, a touching poem takes the place of the image (presumably to appeal to those whose e-mail does not support images), all the names had been removed, the entreaty was changed to third-person and a touching poem was attached.
TO MY CHILD:
Just for this morning, I am going to smile when I see your face and laugh when I feel like crying.
Just for this morning, I will let you choose what you want to wear, and smile and say how perfect it is.
Just for this morning, I am going to step over the laundry, and pick you up and take you to the park to play.
Just for this morning, I will leave the dishes in the sink, and let you teach me how to put that puzzle of yours together.
Just for this afternoon, I will unplug the telephone and keep the computer off, and sit with you in the backyard and blow bubbles.
Just for this afternoon, I will not yell once, not even a tiny grumble when you scream and whine for the ice cream truck, and I will buy you one if he comes by.
Just for this afternoon, I won't worry about what you are going to be when you grow up, or second guess every decision I have made where you are concerned.
Just for this afternoon, I will let you help me bake cookies, and I won't stand over you trying to fix them.
Just for this afternoon, I will take us to McDonald's and buy us both a Happy Meal so you can have both toys.
Just for this evening, I will hold you in my arms and tell you a story about how you were born and how much I love you.
Just for this evening, I will let you splash in the tub and not get angry.
Just for this evening, I will let you stay up late while we sit on the porch and count all the stars.
Just for this evening, I will snuggle beside you for hours, and miss my favorite TV shows.
Just for this evening when I run my finger through your hair as you pray, I will simply be grateful that God has given me the greatest gift ever given. I will think about the mothers and fathers who are searching for their missing children, the mothers and fathers who are visiting their children's graves instead of their bedrooms, and mothers and fathers who are in hospital rooms watching their children suffer senselessly, and screaming inside that they can't handle it anymore. And when I kiss you good night I will hold you a little tighter, a little longer. It is then, that I will thank God for you, and ask him for nothing, except one more day.............
* This was written by a 29 year old father who's just learned that his 10 year old daughter has a brain tumor. Sadly, they don't have the money to pay for the operation and they've asked for help. AOL is tracking this email and for every person who receives this email 32 cents will be donated towards her operation, now I know this sounds very unlikely, but let's just send it out on the belief that maybe just by sending this beautiful poem that we might be helping to save the life of a little girl who hasn't even started to live yet. We might be able to help her experience the little things that all of us take for granted such as falling in love, going to high school, seeing your friends everyday, etc. So please help out, and even if you don't believe that this will help then at least send it out because it's a touching poem.
As of this writing, I have little information on the origins of the poem, except that it appears to have been written by Sally Meyer as a tribute to her son, Dhylan, when he was diagnosed with autism at age 20 months.
The Rachel Arlington chain letter has been translated into various languages and attributed to many different authors in countries all over the world. By now, you're probably thinking: "Enough with the history lesson - why, exactly is this a hoax?" Calm down, you'll get your answers.
The most prevalent early chain letters were ones that promised that great change, monetary gain, or both, could be accomplished though the simple act of forwarding a message to everyone you know. For people not familiar with how the Internet worked, this was a welcoming concept. The desire to help our fellow man - with very little energy and absolutely no cost - is indeed a powerful motivator that led many to believe it could be that easy. Hoaxes like this prey on our desire to help a child and the guilt we'd feel if it was really that easy and we didn't do it. We're even scolded in later versions of the Rachel Arlington chain that we don't have a heart if we don't forward it on. Well, don't feel guilty - nothing about this e-mail makes sense.
AOL and ZDNET are technology companies and are not involved in any kind of fund raiser to save a kid. It is true that large corporations like these do make charitable contributions, but these are seldom in the form of direct monetary payments to an individual or family. Most likely, it would take the form of a large gift given to a hospital or charitable organization that would use the gift to help many, not just one. I have found no evidence of either of these companies - or any other organization for that matter - making any such contribution in the name of Rachel Arlington. In fact, I can find no reference to her name outside of versions of this chain letter.
Even if a company were to give a donation to an individual or family, they certainly wouldn't make them jump through hoops to get it. If the situation were true, an e-mail tracking scheme certainly shouldn't be "the only way they can help?" And, any company that tried such a cruel technique would certainly garner some bad press from their selfishness.
The most compelling argument against this chain is that e-mail tracking as it's described in this letter is impossible. Since the e-mail tracking hoax first originated (in the late 1990s), there have been many great strides in e-mail technology that allow some degree of tracking in very controlled environments and circumstances, but tracking on the level suggested by the Rachel Arlington chain letter simply isn't feasible or desirable.
It isn't feasible because of the simple numbers game. If you forward this chain to ten people who, in turn, pass it on to ten more, and so on, we get one million copies in just 6 generations. At the 32 cent per forward rate, this would add up to $320,000 in just a couple of hours. Now, consider the fact that this chain has been around for more than half a decade in at least a dozen different countries and you'd have a charitable commitment of trillions!
It isn't desirable because of privacy issues. Even if AOL and ZDNET (or whatever companies are named in the version you received) had the ability to know to whom you forward a message (which they don't), would you really want them to? If they could track how many times you forward a message and to whom, what else could they track? At a time when identity theft is the fastest-growing crime worldwide, this would be a most undesirable thing. But, most people are so caught up in the altruistic theme in these chains that they don't stop to consider the serious privacy issues that would surface if such a thing really were real.
That there is nobody overtly tracking this message doesn't mean that forwarding it on is harmless, either. While they can't be tracked in the manner described above, they can be (and are) collected. E-mail tracking hoaxes were most likely created initially to poke fun at and exploit naive new e-mail users. But, recently, e-mail hoaxes have taken on a darker side. Many spammers and scam artists now employ or seek out chain letters like this one to build their mailing lists. When you forward a chain like the Rachel Arlington hoax on to others, you're putting your e-mail address and likely those of your friends and family out in the wild to be collected. If you've been wondering why you get so much unwanted e-mail, the answer may be no further than your "Forward" button. The more junk you send, the more you will receive. Don't want the junk! Break this chain.