Back to The Wire What is The Wire? The Wire features the latest news coverage from The Atlantic.

A Treasury of Terribly Sad Stories of Lotto Winners

As America continues in its frenzy over the now $640-million jackpot up for grabs in tonight's Mega Millions lottery, one thing's clear: You probably don't actually want to win the lottery.

As America continues in its frenzy over the now $640-million jackpot up for grabs in tonight's Mega Millions lottery—have you bought your ticket yet? Have you bought a hundred?—we feel it is our duty to inform you that actually, you really probably don't want to win the lottery. Even if you think you do.

We have collected the true, terribly sad stories of lotto winners that show that winning the lottery, despite the seeming wonderfulness of having some $500600-million more dollars (before taxes) to your name, is not all it's cracked up to be. In fact, what seems like an American dream may actually be something of an American nightmare. Interestingly, the psychology that draws us to lotteries is the low-risk factor: While you might win big, your life goes on virtually unchanged if you don't, so there's not a ton to lose. What you might have to lose, at least according to historical precedent, often comes after you win. At least for these people, to whom the following occurred:

Poverty, after spending all the money on drugs and hookers. This is the sad tale of "Lotto Lout" Michael Carroll, the "self-styled King of Chavs," who "turned up to collect his £9.7million [UK] win wearing an electronic offender's tag." After winning, he used his money on drugs, gambling, and "thousands of prostitutes" only to end up back on the dole after eight years of living the Lotto life. Said Carroll to the Daily Mail, "The party has ended and it's back to reality. I haven't got two pennies to rub together and that's the way I like it. I find it easier to live off £42 dole than a million." He sounds pretty chipper given the details of his story, which involve his wife leaving him and taking their daughter with her, and the loss of £100,000 over eight years in payments to prostitutes, among other rather grave financial mistakes.
Poverty, after excessive gambling. Evelyn Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice, in 1985 and 1986, raking in $5.4 million. "Today the money is all gone and Adams lives in a trailer," writes Ellen Goodstein in a story titled "Unlucky in Riches." Adams said, "I was a big time gambler. I didn't drop a million dollars, but it was a lot of money. I made mistakes, some I regret, some I don't. I'm human. I can't go back now so I just go forward, one step at a time."
Losing friends, fighting among coworkers. Take the case of the Greenwich asset managers who won the $245 million jackpot recently. Whether they were collecting it for a client or not, office lunches are surely a bit uncomfortable nowadays, as are social events with the neighbors who didn't win.
Being looked down on for the winnings. Steve Granger won $900,000 in the West Virginia Lottery in September of 2005, and, after paying the taxes, "put most of it away for his and his wife's retirement," writes Oren Dorell in USA Today. But along with everyone knowing his business, everyone asking for investments, and everyone grabbing at him because he was suddenly considered "lucky," there are the lotto snobs, too. He once heard "someone say in an ugly tone, 'There go those lottery people,' as he and his wife passed by." Ouch.
Ending up in debt for failing to manage the money properly. These tales go on and on. Here are just a few.
A descent into crime (and bankruptcy, too). In 1998, William "Bud" Post III won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery, only to later wish it had never happened. That's because his brother hired a hit man to try to kill him and his sixth wife (and was arrested for doing so), other relatives made him invest in businesses that never paid off, a landlady made him give her a third of his winnings, and Post "spent time in jail for firing a gun over the head of a bill collector." He declared bankruptcy and, in 2006, at the age of, 66, "died of respiratory failure... at a Pittsburgh area hospital," writes Patricia Sullivan in The Washington Post. Then there's Victoria Zell, who won an $11 million Powerball jackpot with her husband in 2001, only to end up in Minnesota prison after being convicted of a drug- and alcohol-induced collision that killed one and paralyzed another. "This just goes to show you winning the Powerball doesn't guarantee you happiness," said County Attorney Amy Klobuchar.
Ending up murdered. Abraham Shakespeare won the $31 million jackpot in Florida in 2006. He disappeared in 2009, having spent most of his fortune; his body was found in early 2010 under a concrete slab. John Campanelli writes in The Plain Dealer, "A woman who had befriended him—and fleeced him for $1.8 million, say police—has been charged in connection with his murder." Campanelli goes on to list 9 other unfortunate lotto cases, including the sad tales of Willie Hurt, who killed a woman over crack cocaine, and Callie Rogers, who won $3 million at the age of 16 in the UK lottery, and used her money on "vacations, cars, gifts, drugs and even breast implants." Rogers was broke by 2009, "driving a used Volkswagen Golf to her job as a maid and had twice attempted suicide."
Suicide. In June of 1997, a man named Billie Bob Harrell Jr. took the $31 million Texas Lottery jackpot. At first, all was great: "Harrell purchased a ranch. He bought a half-dozen homes for himself and other family members. He, his wife and all the kids got new automobiles. He made large contributions to his church. If members of the congregation needed help, Billie Bob was there with cash," writes Steve McVicker in The Houston Press. "Then suddenly Harrell discovered that his life was unraveling almost as quickly as it had come together ... everyone, it seemed—family, friends, fellow worshipers and strangers—was putting the touch on him. His spending and his lending spiraled out of control. In February those tensions splintered his already strained marriage." And tragically, 20 months after winning the lottery, Harrell committed suicide.
Everything terrible happens that possibly can. Jack Whittaker of West Virginia was an already wealthy businessman when he won what was at the time the largest jackpot ever by a single ticket, garnering him $314.9 million on December 25, 2002. A chain of awful events followed, including his car being broken into twice, first with $545,000 in cash stolen, then later with $200,000 stolen (and later recovered); a plot was revealed in which two club employees had planned to drug his drinks and rob him; his granddaughter's boyfriend was found dead in Whittaker's home from an overdose; Whittaker's granddaughter was found dead at a male friend's house after being reported missing (the death was ruled an overdose); Whittaker had a DUI; Whittaker was sued by Caesars Atlantic City casino for bouncing $1.5 million worth in checks to cover gambling losses; Whittaker was sued by a woman who had previously sued him for not paying her money (he claimed thieves had stolen it all from him); and Whittaker's daughter was found dead. "I wish I'd torn that ticket up," Whittaker has said.

Being mocked for being too old to ruin your life if you win the lottery. See "Old Man Wins Lottery, May Possibly Live Happily Ever After."

So, if you don't win, there's that to be grateful for. If you do win: Get in touch. There are tips for that, too.

This post previously appeared on The Wire.

Presented by

Jen Doll is a former staff writer for The Wire. She is the author of Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in National

Just In