Random Facts About … Lottery Winners Having Tragic Lives

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By David Martin —

After the Mega Millions lottery topped $1 billion, the usual stories were trotted out about past lottery winners who had their lives ruined by hitting the jackpot. Should you be glad you didn’t win a billion bucks and end up like the following characters?

The $16.2 million that William Post won in the Pennsylvania lottery lasted him one year. A former girlfriend sued him. His brother plotted to kill him to inherit Post’s wealth. When Post ran out of money and bill collectors showed up, Post fired a gun at one of them and spent time in jail. In debt and living on food stamps and a few hundred dollars a month, the “winner” called his lottery experience a nightmare.

After winning $20 million in an Illinois lottery, Jeffrey Dampier was kidnapped by his wife’s sister and the sister’s boyfriend. Dampier had been using part of his winnings to buy elaborate gifts for his sister-in-law, who ended up shooting and killing him. He’d also been having sex with her, so maybe this story would’ve ended tragically for Dampier even if he hadn’t won the lottery.

Billie Bob Harrell Jr. (and yes, with a name like that, he was from Texas) won $31 million, spent lavishly, gave money away, and then the pressure of it all led him to commit suicide after telling an advisor that winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

With his $10 million in winnings, Canadian Gerald Muswagon bought new cars, drugs, alcohol, a house to party in, and gifts for friends, including, according to the Globe and Mail, “eight big-screen televisions for friends” in a single day. He ran out of money and had to do farm work to make a living. He hanged himself.

Lotteries have been around since at least 1500 B.C. (Moses drew lots to distribute land to the tribes of Israel). States in Colonial America sponsored lotteries to raise money for public projects. And, almost from the beginning, tales of tragic winners became part of lottery lore. According to Slate, stories appeared in Paris about a baker and his pregnant wife killed for their lottery winnings and this was in 1765. In modern America, the tragic lottery winner story has become de rigueur.

But it ain’t necessarily so. Studies from across the world have found that most lottery winners lead happy lives, grateful for their winnings. One Ohio study revealed that more than 85% of lottery winners continue with their pre-lottery lives, including even keeping their old jobs.

If the tragic lottery winner is an outlier, then why do we hear that story so often? Maybe it’s a cautionary tale — don’t gamble, don’t lust for great wealth, don’t tempt fate. Also, some people (not you, of course) get pleasure out of the misery of others, especially when those others have been flying high. The Germans call this “schádenfroh.”

It might scratch an itch to read about tragic lottery winners but, remember, schádenfroh, unlike a winning lottery ticket, is not a good thing to have.

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