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 quintessential American novel McTeague — and the silent-movie classic made from it, Greed — explore just such a phenomenon.
It’s part of human nature to want to get rich quick, but…
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.