April 6, 1999

Babysitter Wins Lottery Jackpot

On this day in 1999, Maria Grasso of Boston won what was then the largest payoff to a single individual in an American lottery — $197,000,000. An immigrant from Chile, Grasso had arrived in the U.S. in 1971, the same year the legislature created the Massachusetts State Lottery. "The Game," introduced in the 1970s, paid out much more money but had the same purpose as the lotteries that were popular two centuries earlier. In the colonial period, government-run lotteries were a common way to raise money for such projects as rebuilding Faneuil Hall after a fire and paying Masachusetts men who served in the Continental Army. Like colonial lotteries, the modern Massachusetts State Lottery increased state revenue without raising taxes.

When a national lottery for the beautification of the nation's capital ended in scandal, the result was victory for anti-lottery forces.

When Massachusetts instituted a state lottery in 1971, gambling was already a 250-year-old tradition in the Commonwealth. Lottery tickets had been sold to pay for schools, soldiers, and public works in Massachusetts since the eighteenth century.

Lotteries have a long history. Although scholars disagree on who devised the first lottery, they existed when the Bible was written. In the Book of Numbers, Moses allotted land west of the River Jordan by lottery. Ancient India, Japan, and Greece all had lotteries. China used lotteries to help raise the funds to build the Great Wall.

In Renaissance Europe, lotteries were a popular way to finance the construction of chapels, almshouses, canals, and port facilities. Queen Elizabeth I authorized the first English state lottery in 1567; 400,000 tickets were offered to those wanting to take chances on winning cash, silver plate, and tapestries.

The American colonies, in fact, were started with money raised by an English lottery. In 1612 King James I approved a lottery "in special favor for the present plantation of English Colonies in Virginia." (At that time, "Virginia" referred to any English settlement along the North Atlantic coast.) People from all ranks of society purchased tickets. The drawing, held in St. Paul's Cathedral, netted 29,000 pounds. The winner of the first prize, a tailor, found himself richer by "foure thousand crowns in . . . [silver] plate which was sent to his house in a very stately manner."

In 1612 King James I approved a lottery "in special favor for the present plantation of English Colonies in Virginia."

Although the early settlers of Virginia sanctioned lotteries to fund public works such as road and bridge construction, Puritan magistrates in Massachusetts were opposed to lotteries. Puritans considering gambling in any form a vice and outlawed gaming, including the possession of cards and dice. Although the laws were later relaxed for "moderate" private recreation, Massachusetts ministers throughout the seventeenth century frowned on lotteries; as late as 1699 a group of Boston ministers "deplored the turning aside of the poor from earnest labor and frugality to throw themselves into the hands of chance."

As Puritanism loosened its grip on Massachusetts, the colony began to hold lotteries as a way to meet one-time expenses. For example, after Massachusetts had spent heavily to defend itself in the French and Indian War, the General Court authorized a lottery to raise money to pay the colony's debt "in a manner the least burdensome to the inhabitants." Twenty-five thousand tickets were printed, each costing 30 shillings, a substantial sum at the time. However, in this and most other colonial lotteries, the chances were high of winning something; with over 5,000 cash prizes, the odds were better than one in five.

. . . as late as 1699 a group of Boston ministers "deplored the turning aside of the poor from earnest labor and frugality to throw themselves into the hands of chance."

Once the lottery had made its appearance in colonial Massachusetts, the tactic was used frequently. After a disastrous fire in Boston in 1760, John Hancock sponsored a lottery to raise money to rebuild Faneuil Hall. Lotteries were held to raise funds for buildings at Harvard. (Yale, Princeton, and Columbia were funded the same way.) In 1778 the state legislature resorted to a lottery to raise funds to pay Massachusetts men who enlisted in the Continental Army. Over the next few years, four different lotteries were held to fund the war effort.

After the Revolution, Massachusetts continued to use lotteries to fund public works and education. Since the development of manufacturing was considered beneficial to the state, even private industries, such as a Milton paper mill and a Beverly cotton factory, were supported by state-authorized lottery ticket sales.

But in the mid-1800s, as social reform movements gained popularity, the lottery fell out of favor. All forms of gambling came under attack; lotteries were particularly stigmatized. When a national lottery for the beautification of the nation's capital ended in scandal, the result was victory for anti-lottery forces. Massachusetts, along with Pennsylvania and New York, abolished state-authorized lotteries.

. . . she was at the grocery store where there were "a few people buying tickets. And I see the big prize, $197,000,000. And I say I'll take a chance."

A hundred years would pass before legalized gambling returned to the Bay State. During the Depression, bingo was decriminalized in an effort to help churches and charitable organizations raise money. In the 1960s growing opposition to tax increases made the public more receptive to lotteries as an alternative means of raising revenue. New Hampshire led the way in 1964, followed by New York and New Jersey. On September 27, 1971, a bill creating the Massachusetts State Lottery was signed into law. The first tickets were sold on March 22, 1972.

Maria Grasso's winning ticket was for a "Big Game" jackpot, a multi-state lottery game that guarantees a minimum jackpot of $5,000,000. Grasso had immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 26, earned her high school equivalency diploma five years later, and become a citizen in 1984. She worked as a nanny for the wealthy venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli and his wife. She rarely played the lottery. In the spring of 1999, however, no one won the "Big Game" several weeks running, and the jackpot was a record size. Maria Grasso told reporters that she was at the grocery store where there were "a few people buying tickets. And I see the big prize, $197,000,000. And I say I'll take a chance." A few days later, she was a millionaire.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"Lottery Fever," Antiques Digest.

"History of Gambling in the United States," from Gambling in California by Roger Dunston, California Research Bureau, California State Library, 1997.

"Massachusetts State Lottery Commission Information Packet."

"Chilean Nanny Claims Big Game Lottery Prize," April 14, 1999, CNN.com

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