Lotto Death Curse
Why do so many big winners meet an untimely demise? New research into “positive income shock” shows it’s not an illusion—sudden wealth and violent death go hand in hand.
Upon learning that they'd just won £56 million last week in the U.K.'s biggest-ever lottery draw, janitor Nigel Page and his partner Justine Laycock celebrated by eating bacon-butter sandwiches at their local supermarket.
It's just one more reason they might be dead soon. Among others are Page's intention to spend some of his winnings on an off-road vehicle and, as an avid skydiver, jump out of planes more often. He also wants to open an indoor skydiving center, complete with a vertical wind tunnel.
Just don't be shocked if his chute fails to deploy. Stories of lottery winners dying prematurely are a dime a dozen. Just last Friday, as the Euromillions win was being announced, investigators were grilling the ex-girlfriend of Abraham Shakespeare, the Florida man who won the $30 million lotto jackpot four years ago and was murdered in November. Then there's 29-year-old Stuart Donnelly, who became the youngest-ever U.K. National Lottery winner in 1997. Three weeks ago, he was found dead in his Scottish bungalow, having choked on his own vomit. Last month, 47-year-old Deborah McDonald was run over by a car near Sandusky, Ohio, after leaving a bar where she had been celebrating her win on the Ohio Lottery's official TV show, Cash Explosion Double Play.
The list goes on: In 2003, a bus carrying a group of Germans overturned, killing 28—they were on a trip to Spain that they had won in a lottery. And the year before that, factory worker Dennis Elwell committed suicide by drinking cyanide seven months after winning £92,000 in the U.K. lotto.
Such lurid anecdotes stretch back over a century. "Won $500,000 and Died Penniless," reads an 1893 headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune. "Lottery Winner Slain," blares a 1924 story in the Pittsburgh Press. In 1934, the Montreal Gazette announced, "Lottery Winner Dies of Shock." And in the August 19, 1936, New York Times: "Henry Patnaude of Manchester won about $1,100 in a lottery last spring and gave up his job as a meat cutter. Today he was found a suicide by gas."
Does winning the lottery actually shorten your lifespan? Cynics have long derided the supposed lottery curse as a fraud, chalking it up to inflated media coverage of such deaths. But according to a study completed last year at the Paris School of Economics, statistics may be on the side of the superstitious—the results suggest that sudden windfalls can in fact increase one's risk of death.
It's one result of what economists call "positive income shock." While the already-rich may enjoy lower mortality rates than the rest of us, the suddenly rich experience just the opposite. "Positive individual income shocks produce changes in lifestyles which may well be prejudicial to health," the report reads. "Exogenously higher income"—that is, wealth that comes, poof, out of the blue—"produces unhealthy living."
"At first sight, this looks surprising," says one of the study's authors, Bénédicte Apouey. "However, previous macroeconomic research has found that when the economy expands in the U.S., physical health deteriorates."
Her coauthor, Andrew Clark, suggests two explanations: "First, you win some money and you start to hang out with a different group of people, and this changes what you want to do in life. Second, your preferences don't change, but your budget constraint has been relaxed. As such, you can buy more cigarettes and booze."
Indeed, sudden wealth appears to turn non-smokers into smokers, and make smokers smoke more. It has the same effect on alcohol consumption. "Lottery winner dies of vodka and money," reads a 1999 story in London's Evening Standard about "an unemployed German" who "drank himself to death after winning £1.35 million." That same year, 55-year-old Philip Kitchen won £2 million in England's National Lottery. Three years later, his body was found on the sofa from which he'd hardly moved for months, surrounded by two crates of lager and a bottle of whisky. Newspapers reported that he "drank himself to death."
In other words, sudden riches allow people to do dumb things on a much grander scale than they had the means to do before. "I don't think there's such a thing as a lottery curse, but rather that stupid is as stupid does," says Edward Ugel, whose book Money for Nothing: One Man's Journey Through the Dark Side of Lottery Millions recounts his seven years spent working in what is known as the lump-sum industry, a form of loan-sharking that preys on lottery winners. "When you hear about tragedies happening to lottery winners, it all boils down to one question: Who was this person before they won?"
According to profile, this person was working-class, familiar with vice, and not shy about taking risks. (What is playing the lottery if not a willingness to take a chance on something that probably won't turn out well?) Take Virginia Merida, an employee at a box-making factory, and her ex-husband Mack Metcalf, a forklift operator, who shared a $34 million Kentucky Powerball jackpot in 2000. Mack, according to reports, used his winnings to fill his home with Rottweilers, tarantulas, and a boa constrictor. Three years after his big win, he was dead of hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Virginia, for her part, watched her quiet and orderly home devolve into a drug den. Her boyfriend was found dead there in 2004, and her own corpse, undiscovered for days, lay there a year later.
The thousands of lottery winners Ugel met weren't interested in improving their lives, he says. "Their attitude was, I've got a hall pass. Now I'm set for life… So they go right out and buy a Porsche and a big house on the hill."
And once the winner is living large, his loved ones often expect a piece of the action. "Forget about the typical guys who go after you: the insurance agents, the guys who have a bridge to sell you," says Ugel. "It's the friends and family you've got to worry about. Once you win, who'll always be expected to pick up every tab at every bar? Who'll always be expected to bail out the sister who's so terrible with money?" Resist or refuse, and treachery can ensue.
Abraham Shakespeare is a prime example. Immediately after he hit the jackpot in 2006, friends began hounding him for loans, and by 2009, his $30 million was already greatly diminished. It was at this point, say authorities, that Dorice Moore befriended him—a 37-year-old buxom blonde, she says she was trying to help him hide from the people trying to leech off his winnings, but she herself admits to having taken $2 million from him. This month, she was charged as an accessory to his murder, one more so-called friend who sped him to his grave. "Abraham Shakespeare didn't just trip and fall into five feet of cement," says Ugel.
Jonathan DeYoe agrees. As a wealth manager, he often finds himself in the position of protecting the suddenly rich from potential predators—and from themselves.
"They're going to go after you," DeYoe says. "People are going to ask you for money, and you're going to want to give them money, because you're a good person." To stay rich—and to stay alive—he advises "thinking about the long-term. Take some quiet time to reflect on who you are, what your values are, what your life vision and life mission are."
In Ugel's view, however, one villain looms high above the rest.
"If you're looking for someone who's wearing the black hat, it's the lotteries themselves. They hang their winners out to dry because once you win, even if you'd like to live a quiet life, they won't let you."
Of the 42 states that operate lotteries, only two allow their winners to remain anonymous. "Imagine how your life would change if I suddenly put $50 million in your bank account and printed an ad in the paper about it. When you win, it's a big party and the lottery sends out the invitations and all the chickens come home to roost. You're screwed the second you win."
"Of the thousands of lottery winners I knew, a few were happy and a few lived happily ever after," says Ugel. "But you would be blown away to see how many winners wish they'd never won." Abraham Shakespeare was one of these winners—before his death, he reportedly told his mother he wished he'd never bought that winning ticket. Had he not, he'd most likely be alive today.
Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.