When Ronald Reagan campaigned against Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, he gave countless speeches about “a woman in Chicago who exemplified the welfare mess.” According to Reagan, that woman “used eighty names, thirty addresses, and twelve Social Security cards to collect all kinds of public benefits.” And he may not have known, or cared, whether his unnamed woman was real. He almost certainly didn’t know that she was a violent, flamboyant con artist who went by Linda Taylor, and, as Slate editor Josh Levin demonstrates in his rigorous new biography The Queen, her life was infinitely more complex than Reagan made it out to be.
Linda Taylor was born Martha Louise White in 1926, in the sundown town of Cullman, Alabama. She was biracial, though her white mother never acknowledged her paternity—under Alabama law, she would have been guilty of a crime had she done so. Martha spent her childhood acutely aware that her race was a secret, and that her family was ashamed of her. At 18, she fled to Seattle. There, she encountered a new set of prejudices. During World War II, state and federal governments “sought to control [venereal disease] by controlling women.” Martha was arrested on suspicion of prostitution multiple times, a victim of moral “panic over dissolute, disease-riddled tramps.”
Levin does his best to trace Martha’s path as she burned through husbands, cities, and names. By the time she landed in Chicago in the mid-1960s, she went by Linda Taylor, but she learned to change her identity the way most people change hairstyle. She also learned to take advantage of every person and system she could. Levin tells this story with a forceful combination of empathy and rigor. Taylor—the name I’ll use from here on—was born into a family that had no desire to care for her and a country that made no space for her. Levin never psychoanalyzes his subject, but his reporting is more than enough to demonstrate how a life defined by rejection, suspicion, and stereotype turned Taylor into a con artist.
And Taylor was quite a con artist. She defrauded public aid services in Illinois and Michigan, sued for imaginary injuries, bought houses she never paid for, married men in order to steal from them, and befriended women in order to do the same. She kidnapped at least one child, and while on bail pending trial for welfare fraud, she likely committed a murder. The victim was Patricia Parks, a Trinidadian immigrant who Taylor befriended after Parks’ divorce. Taylor began treating Parks for multiple sclerosis and persuaded Parks to write her into her will. Shortly after making Taylor her executor, Parks died of a barbiturate overdose.
The circumstances were clearly suspicious, but Levin writes that “no journalist bemoaned the failure to prosecute her possible killer. No crusading state senator pushed the state’s attorneys to keep their investigation alive. The Chicago Police Department could’ve done its own intensive investigation into Patricia Parks’s death rather than defer to the state’s attorney. It didn’t.” At the time, the Chicago police, the state attorneys and legislature, and the Chicago Tribune were all pursuing Taylor—but none of them cared whether she was a murderer. They only cared about welfare fraud.
By the time Parks died, newspapers across the United States, led by the Tribune, were attacking Taylor as a “welfare queen.” Both journalists and politicians exploited Taylor’s frauds, combined with her Cadillac-driving, fur-wearing aesthetic, to “[give] credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes… If one welfare queen walked the earth, [they claimed,] then surely, others did too.” Those stereotypes played on racist, sexist, and classist tropes about black women and single mothers, both of whose “dissolute behavior needed to be policed.” When Taylor was first arrested in Seattle in 1944, “dissolute behavior” meant having sex. By 1975, the most “dissolute” thing Taylor could do was spend taxpayer money—and, even worse, spend it on luxuries.
Linda Taylor was never prosecuted for kidnapping or murder. Levin was the first reporter to interview Patricia Parks’ ex-husband John Parks, and he learned that “nobody in any position of authority… had bothered to ask him what he thought of Patricia’s friend [Taylor].” Parks’ suffering, as well as Taylor’s own, vanished into the myth of the “welfare queen” who “insulted” taxpayers by spending their money on furs. The Queen is a moving effort to redeem both women’s humanity, and a powerful reminder to ask what stories lie behind the ones that catch the public eye.