10 of the Unluckiest People in History
Grab your lucky rabbit’s foot and read up on the tales of some of the unluckiest people in history—from the man whose backyard became a battlefield (twice!) to an absurdly accident-prone instrument inventor—adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Costis Mitsotakis
On December 22, 2011, the small Spanish village of Sodeto transformed from a rural farming community into a suddenly wealthy enclave, thanks to a lottery worth $950 million. Everyone in the town shared in the riches. Well, everyone except for one man.
Spain’s Christmastime lottery, known as El Gordo (or the Fat One) isn’t exactly like the Powerball you may be familiar with. The government prints out multiple series of tickets with the numbers from zero to 99,999 and distributes them to local offices throughout the country. Anyone can purchase a single ticket for 200 euros, and it’s common to then break the tickets down further into tenths or even smaller fractions for people who don’t want to pay the full freight.
Each year, Sodeto’s local housewives’ association would buy a collection of these tickets and knock on every door in town to sell them off by a quarter of a tenth of a full ticket. It was basically a way to raise money for town functions—you would pay five euros to get in the game and throw in an extra euro for the association’s community efforts. More money got you more entries, and by extension a larger share of any hypothetical winnings. For the 2011 drawing, as a piece in GQ explained, a woman named Carmen from the housewives’ association chose to buy 6000 euros' worth of tickets all marked 58268. Everyone in the village participated in the yearly tradition, knowing that they would probably all lose the lottery, but enjoying the dream of cashing in together.
That year, they cashed in, in a big way. When the village’s number was drawn, word spread quickly throughout the town. People flooded the streets in celebration, waking up Costis Mitsotakis, a filmmaker from Greece who had originally moved to a barn on the outskirts of the village to be with his girlfriend. That relationship didn’t work out, but you’d be hard-pressed to say it was the unluckiest moment for Mitsotakis in Spain. It seems that the housewives’ association simply forgot to reach out to him that year, leaving him on the outside looking in as the massive winnings were eventually split between 70 households. Prizes ranged from $130,000 to a few million per household, depending on the amount of full tickets or ticket fractions a person bought.
Mitsotakis explained to The New York Times that it would have been nice to be part of the winnings, but he didn’t seem to hold a grudge. He even plans on releasing a documentary about the impact the lottery had on the village some day.
2. Wilmer McLean
It’s bad enough having unwanted guests come over—but what about an unwanted army? How about two unwanted armies? That’s the fate that befell Wilmer McLean, who lived on a farm in the Manassas area of Virginia. If Manassas sounds familiar, it’s because it was the site of the First Battle of Bull Run, the 1861 military engagement that was the first major land conflict of the American Civil War. The violence took place pretty much right on top of McLean’s land, with Confederate forces using his home as their headquarters. At one point, a cannonball broke through the house and landed in the kitchen.
McLean, a former member of the Virginia militia, was apparently fine with the ordeal at first, though he probably wasn’t looking forward to the cleanup afterward. Then, the very next year, it happened all over again—Union and Confederate soldiers squared off for the Second Battle of Bull Run, again on McLean’s doorstep. In all, the battles racked up around 20,000 casualties, leaving McLean no other choice than to sell the land and move his pregnant wife 100 miles south to avoid having his property used as makeshift army headquarters.
Unfortunately, he just so happened to wind up moving to the community of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. In 1865, the war found Willy again. This time, his home became the scene of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, leading a most-likely exasperated McLean to allegedly say, "The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor."
After the surrender, soldiers on both sides cleared out McLean’s home of anything they could get their hands on: Art, furniture, and clothing were all taken as souvenirs, and all McLean could do was sit back and watch. One Union soldier went so far as to steal one of McLean’s daughter’s dolls [PDF].
3. Henry Gunther
World War I raged from 1914 through the end of 1918 and claimed a morbid total of up to 20 million civilians and military personnel along the way. After more than four years of constant conflict, an armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, that signaled the end of hostilities. The agreement was signed around 5 a.m. and didn’t officially go into effect until 11. That left six hours for the message to reach the front lines, and plenty of time for a few final shots to be fired.
Enter: Henry Gunther, whose time in the trenches was riddled with bad luck, even by trench standards. First, the Baltimore native was demoted from a sergeant to a private after military censors read a letter he wrote to a friend complaining about the war and urging him not to enlist. Then, upon hearing about the demotion, his fiancée allegedly decided to call off their engagement.
Gunther eventually took on the role of a runner, carrying messages back and forth between units on the battlefield. To put it mildly, it was not the cushiest of gigs. In the waning days of the conflict, he was stationed in France when word of the armistice reached his squad and the German machine-gun nests at a nearby hilltop. But there were still 16 minutes until the hostilities officially ended.
Then, at 10:58 a.m., shots rang out from the German position. The details are a little foggy: In some accounts, the U.S. troops were ambushed by German machine gun fire; in others, the Germans were simply firing warning shots before the end of the conflict. Whatever the reason, it led Gunther to charge one of the nests, as soldiers on both sides pleaded with him to halt—to no avail. Gunther was gunned down at 10:58 a.m., making him the last American officially killed in the war. His exact motivation will never be known—some speculate he acted on his own, while other historians believe it was a direct order from his superiors.
Gunther wasn’t alone, though. It’s estimated that as many as 3000 soldiers died in that six-hour window waiting for the armistice to become official, and the fighting actually continued for weeks in some areas farther from Europe.
4. Yang Kyoungjong
Soldiers typically only fight for one side during a war—it’s kind of the whole point of a war. But according to legend, Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean soldier, eventually found himself fighting for both sides during World War II. And the whole time, he was fighting against his will.
His strange journey began in 1938, when he was forced into joining Japan’s Kwantung Army, which operated mostly in Manchuria. A year later, he fought in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, part of the undeclared border conflicts between the Soviets, Japanese, Mongolians, and Manchurians. There, he was captured by the Soviets and sent to a labor camp. During the height of World War II, he was forced by his captors into the Red Army to help in the war effort against Germany.
As bad luck would have it, Yong was captured again in 1943, this time by Nazis during the Battle of Kharkov. But his stint in prison wouldn’t last long—soon, the Germans slapped a uniform on him and made him one of their own. Now fighting on behalf of the Axis powers, Yang was sent to France. He fought against the Allies until—you guessed it—he was captured yet again, this time by the Americans. He was sent to another prison camp—this time in Britain—before being sent to the U.S. After the war, he settled down in the States and lived out his days in Illinois, where he kept hush-hush about his military past.
While it all makes for a fascinating story, there are many historians who doubt it ever really happened. Either way, it has emerged as a classic example of the chaos of that war.
5. Ronald Wayne
In January 2022, Apple’s market value briefly hit $3 trillion. The foundation of this mega-conglomerate was famously laid by two men: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But there was a third Apple founder who you probably don't know about—Ronald Wayne. When Woz and Jobs decided to form a company together, they wanted Wayne to have a 10 percent stake in order to solve arguments and guide administrative decisions. One early decision, from back before Apple was officially incorporated, saw Wayne help Woz understand the importance of Apple having proprietary circuits. He also helped in more unconventional ways by designing the company’s first logo.
Unfortunately for Wayne, he wound up cutting ties with the future world-beater before it took off. He sold his 10 percent share after 12 days. For that, he earned a cool $800. In a 2017 interview with Vice, Wayne sounded at peace with his decision, saying he never regretted selling his shares because he wasn’t passionate about computers. He doesn’t even have a cellphone, has never owned an Apple product, and doesn’t believe in investing in anything dollar-related (he sticks to gold and silver). Maybe it’s a good thing he doesn’t believe in the dollar, because he would have well over $200 billion of them if he could somehow cash out on that 10 percent ownership in Apple today.
6. Ann Hodges
During the afternoon of November 30, 1954, people across parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi reported a bright red flash in the sky—according to National Geographic, people suspected everything from a fiery plane crash to the Russians could be responsible. What those onlookers actually saw was a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite that was on a collision course with a 34-year-old woman named Ann Hodges.
The incident took place around 2 p.m., when Hodges was jolted awake from a midday nap after the 8.5-pound chunk of meteorite rock crashed through her ceiling, ricocheted off her radio, and made a beeline into her left side. The odds are hard to wrap your mind around—this was a piece of space debris about as old as Earth itself, and its journey inexplicably ended in a Sylacauga, Alabama, living room, where a woman was taking a snooze on the couch.
The whole thing turned Hodges—and the gnarly black bruise on her side—into a minor celebrity. But what kind of bad luck must you have to be hit by something from space? Astronomer Michael Reynolds told National Geographic that “You have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time.”
Hodges’s luck didn’t get much better after the whole ordeal. Since Ann was renting the house she had been snoozing in, the home’s owner sought ownership of the meteorite and proceeded to sue the Hodges family to get it back. The matter was settled out of court, with the home’s owner getting $500 and allowing Ann and her husband to keep the rock.
But there were no buyers and no profit to be made from Ann’s ordeal. Instead, the meteorite had a brief stint as the Hodges’s new doorstop before they eventually donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
7. Roy Sullivan
The odds of you being struck by lightning aren’t quite as minuscule as getting hit by a meteorite, but it’s still pretty rare. In a given year, the chances are about 1 in 500,000. The odds of getting struck twice in your lifetime? You’re looking at about 1 in 9 million. By the seventh time, though, you have to wonder if the universe just has it in for you. Maybe that was going through park ranger Roy Sullivan’s head as he entered the Guinness World Records in 1977 as the person to survive the most lightning strikes in history.
The first strike went down in 1942, and cost Roy the nail on his big toe. Roy was in store for six more strikes that went down in ‘69, ‘70, ‘72, ‘73, ‘76, and ‘77. In that time, he suffered injuries to his shoulder, ankle, and chest. The strike in ‘72 even caused his hair to catch fire, and in ‘73, he was struck again, causing him to lose the very hair he had just regrown.
8. Adolphe Sax
Adolphe Sax’s name lives on through his invention, the saxophone, but that’s hardly the only musical instrument he put his name to—he also created the saxotromba, saxhorn, and saxtuba. But his other claim to fame is far more absurd: Sax suffered a comical string of near-death experiences that would be right at home in a Harold Lloyd movie.
It started as a young child, when Sax toppled down three flights of stairs, punctuating the mishap by whacking his head on a rock and, as the story goes, ending up in a coma. There was also the time he fell onto a lit stove and suffered burns across his body, and the episode in which poor Sax nearly drowned in a river and was fished out by someone passing by.
Sax also had numerous run-ins with poison, including the time he drank some mistaking it for milk. And then there’s the time a roof tile fell on his head and knocked him out. Oh, and the time he was blown across a room by exploding gunpowder. These various calamities even led his mother to allegedly say, “He’s a child condemned to misfortune; he won’t live.”
Sax miraculously escaped all of these near-calamities with just some bruises, a few burns, and a reputation for being something of a klutz. And maybe that reputation would have been all he was ever known for—if not for the fact that he just so happened to invent one of the most popular musical instruments on the planet.
9. Jeanne Rogers
If Sax’s slapstick shenanigans sound unbelievable, the tales of Jeanne Rogers will probably be even harder to wrap your head around. They start at the age of 18, when—according to her, at least—she fell off a cruise ship while trying to snap some pictures. She apparently kept backing up and backing up until she toppled over a railing. Her friend tried to get help, but then she slipped on the wet deck and knocked herself unconscious. She eventually came to and wondered what happened to Jeanne. No one knew what she was talking about—and Jeanne was left bobbing in the water on a life preserver until the ship swung around and scooped her up.
A few years later, while Jeanne was delivering cosmetic orders in a Connecticut suburb, her young son looked up and said “Mommy, funny bird!” Suddenly, she was under attack from a bat in broad daylight, which latched onto her hair and refused to let go. As she desperately went from door to door looking for help, she was greeted by shrieks from the neighbors. This apparently led the distressed bat to dig its claws into her scalp even harder and proceed to urinate on her head. Eventually, someone basically threw their car keys at Jeanne, who had to drive herself—and the bat—to a local vet. The vet, in turn, threw a bag over her head and filled it with smoke to knock the bat out. In the end, the bat had ripped a chunk of Jeanne’s hair out, forcing her to wear a beret for three months.
But her plight was far from over.
According to Jeanne’s own accounts, she was also mugged, fell into an open manhole, and was almost killed by her own husband in a drunken rage. She was also struck by lightning twice, with one of the strikes blowing off her shoes.
All of this ranges from absurd to really tragic and genuinely terrifying. But the coup de grâce—the main event, so to speak—came one day when Jeanne was swimming at the local YMCA in Hartford, Connecticut, when she heard over the intercom that someone named Rogers was being paged. Jeanne decided to lift herself out of the water and see what the message was all about. But somehow—as with most things in her life—things went sideways. She accidentally wound up tugging on a man’s swimsuit as they both tried to get out of the pool, causing his suit to come down and give bystanders an unexpected show.
The man? Another Rogers who thought he was getting paged. It just so happened to be Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mister Rogers, whose entire Neighborhood was out in the open for the YMCA to see.
When interviewed in the Bangor Daily News in 2007, Jeanne summed up her feelings perfectly: “Dying doesn’t scare me. But living scares the crap out of me.”
10. Steve Bartman
You probably know the story of Steve Bartman, one of the unluckier fans to ever attend a baseball game. In short, back in 2003, Bartman was sitting in the seats down the left-field line at Wrigley Field during a game that could have sent the star-crossed Cubs to the World Series. When a ball was hit in his direction, Bartman reached out to grab it, but in the process, he interfered with Cubs outfielder Moises Alou, who could have caught the ball and brought his team one out closer to the pennant. Instead, the Cubs lost the game and then the series, and their 95-year stretch without a title continued. Bartman quickly became Public Enemy No. 1 in Chicago and basically disappeared from the face of the Earth.
But everyone’s luck changed in 2016 when the Cubs finally won the World Series. To make up for over a decade of abuse that Bartman suffered after the 2003 incident, the team awarded him with his own championship ring, which he accepted in private—no cameras, no reporters. He did, however, put out a statement that everyone could stand to listen to:
“I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society. Moreover, I am hopeful this ring gesture will be the start of an important healing and reconciliation process for all involved.”