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5 Things You Didn't Know About the Lottery

(Image credit: Lazy Lightning [Flickr])

Call it the poor man's dream, a casino without walls, or a tax on the stupid, the lottery has deep and widespread roots. Here's a look at five stories about the numbers game.

1. Lotteries of Yore (It's Older Than You Think!)

Lotteries have been around as long as arithmetic. According to the Bible, God ordered Moses to use a lottery to divvy up land along the River Jordan (it's in the Book of Numbers, naturally). And that ain't all the "good book" has to say about it: lotteries are also mentioned in Joshua, Leviticus, and Proverbs. The lottery can also be traced back to China, where a warlord named Cheung Leung came up with a numbers game to persuade citizens to help pay for his army. Today, it's known as keno. Other famous lotteries? The Chinese used one to help finance the Great Wall; Augustus Caesar authorized one to raise money for public works projects in Rome. And in 1466, in what is now the Belgian town of Bruges, a lottery was created to help the poor - which lotteries supposedly have been doing ever since.

2. The Founding Fathers Took Their Chances

Displaying the astute politicians' aversion to direct taxation, early American leaders often turned to lotteries to raise a buck or two. John Hancock organized several lotteries, including one to rebuild Boston's Faneuil Hall. Ben Franklin used them during the Revolutionary War to purchase a cannon for the Continental Army. George Washington ran a lottery to pay for a road into the wilds of western Virginia. And Thomas Jefferson wrote of lotteries, "Far from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of Man." Of course, when he wrote it, he was trying to convince the Virginia legislature to let him hold a lottery to pay off his debts.

3. Louisiana: a Whole Lotto Love

Ticket from the Louisiana State Lottery (Image Credit: Louisiana Lottery [wiki])

By the end of the Civil War, lotteries in America had such bad reputations, they were banned in most states. But not in Louisiana, where a well-bribed legislature in 1869 gave an exclusive charter to a private firm called the Louisiana Lottery Company. The company sold tickets throughout the country, and for 25 years, it raked in millions of dollars while paying out relatively small prizes and contributing chump change to a few New Orleans charities. Finally, in 1890, Congress passed a law banning the sale of lottery tickets through the mail, and eventually all multistate lottery sales were banned. What's a corrupt U.S. company to do? Move offshore, of course! The Louisiana Lottery moved its operations to Honduras, and America was lottery free until 1963, when New Hampshire started the lottery cycle anew.

4. "Inaction" Jackson: Lotter's Biggest Loser

Clarence Jackson's luck began to run out on Friday, the 13th of October, 1995, when the Connecticut Lottery picked the numbers on Jackson's lotto ticket, making his family the winners of $5.8 million. Only he didn't know about it - and didn't find out until 15 minutes before the one-year deadline to claim the prize, despite a whole slew of lottery ads seeking the winner. Jackson, a 23-year-old who'd taken over the family's struggling office cleaning business from his ailing father, didn't make it in time, and lottery officials rejected the claim. In 1997, the Connecticut General Assembly voted to award Jackson the prize, but the state senate refused to go along. Up until 2004, Jackson was still trying each year to convince the legislature. And still losing.

5. And Some Other Jackson: It's Biggest "Winner"

Andrew Jackson "Jack" Whittaker was already wealthy when he won the multistate Powerball lottery in December 2002. A millionaire contractor from West Virginia, Whittaker became the biggest single lottery winner in history after snagging a $314.9 million jackpot. But the dough seemed to carry more curses than the Hope Diamond. And when Jack decided to take a $170.5 million lump sum instead of payments over 20 years, it wasn't the only lump coming his way. Whittaker was robbed three times, once of more than $500,000 at a strip club. He was also sued for assault, arrested for drunk driving, and even booked for getting into a bar fight. And in September 2004, three burglars broke into his house and found the boyd of a friend of Whittaker's granddaughter, whose death may have been drug related. The sad truth? Simply that money doesn't guarantee peace of mind.

From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!

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