Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography In this critically acclaimed true crime tale of "welfare queen" Linda Taylor, a Slate editor reveals a "wild, only-in-America story" of political manipulation and murder (Attica Locke, Edgar Award-winning author). On the South Side of Chicago in 1974, Linda Taylor reported a phony burglary, concocting a lie about stolen furs and jewelry. The detective who checked it out soon discovered she was a welfare cheat who drove a Cadillac to collect ill-gotten government checks. And that was just the beginning: Taylor, it turned out, was also a kidnapper, and possibly a murderer. A desperately ill teacher, a combat-traumatized Marine, an elderly woman hungry for companionship -- after Taylor came into their lives, all three ended up dead under suspicious circumstances. But nobody -- not the journalists who touted her story, not the police, and not presidential candidate Ronald Reagan -- seemed to care about anything but her welfare thievery. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Taylor was made an outcast because of the color of her skin. As she rose to infamy, the press and politicians manipulated her image to demonize poor black women. Part social history, part true-crime investigation, Josh Levin's mesmerizing book, the product of six years of reporting and research, is a fascinating account of American racism, and an exposé of the "welfare queen" myth, one that fueled political debates that reverberate to this day. The Queen tells, for the first time, the fascinating story of what was done to Linda Taylor, what she did to others, and what was done in her name. "In the finest tradition of investigative reporting, Josh Levin exposes how a story that once shaped the nation's conscience was clouded by racism and lies. As he stunningly reveals in this "invaluable work of nonfiction," the deeper truth, the messy truth, tells us something much larger about who we are (David Grann, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon).
Linda Taylor, the so-called “welfare queen” did indeed flaunt a wealthy lifestyle, including luxury cars and fur coats, but her convictions for welfare fraud amounted to the use of four aliases to collect slightly under $8,000. Most investigators on the case suspected her of having made many, many more bogus claims, but she was never prosecuted for them.
And that, of itself, is one of the more fascinating and frustrating facts about this enigmatic woman who cut a swath of deceit, theft, and probably murder through America’s heartland.
The woman later known as Linda Taylor was born Martha Louise White, in January of 1925, in Tennessee. Though her mother was white, Martha’s father was almost certainly a black man, whom the child never knew. The family presented her as white, partly through pride, and partly because sexual activity between the races was a felony in that place and time. But within the family, Martha always knew she was unloved. In fact her mother, in later years, claimed the racially-ambiguous child had been presented to her as a foundling.
Martha left home fairly early, and racked up arrest records and eight different aliases by the time she was 22. Most of her offenses were based on charges of prostitution and various misdemeanors. When she was 30 years old and already an experienced scam artist, Martha (now using the name Constance Wakefield) attempted to pass herself off as the long-lost child (and therefor legitimate heir) of a Chicago gambler named Lawrence Wakefield, who had died intestate and with no known heirs to grab an estate valued at roughly $7 million. (That was the point at which her mother supported the “foundling” story.) While “Constance” was never successful in getting her bogus story accepted, she apparently began filing for welfare to support herself and her five children, the number of whom was frequently inflated as she double- and triple- and quadruple-dipped into the Family Aid program in Chicago.
Eventually, she moved on from that, collecting a number of new aliases, including primarily “Linda Taylor”. When she filed a false burglary claim (and likely not for the first time), she came to the attention of a Chicago detective, and a series of investigations followed which led to her conviction on the four fraud counts and some jail time.
But her career was far from over. Taylor went on to a number of other lucrative scams, including quite probably baby-brokering and murder for profit.
Levin’s unreeling of the tale jumps around in space and time and is frequently hard to follow. For the reader who is hopelessly lost, he does include a brief biographical timeline at the back of the book.
But Taylor’s story is far more than that of a single woman whose greed led her astray. As the anonymous “welfare queen”, her cautionary tale was used as a springboard to various reframings of family aid programs across the nation, over a time span of decades. Her identification at that time as a black woman reinforced profiling of an entire race as cheaters and parasites. And her many interactions with the courts showed a shocking disarray in American jurisprudence.
How did she get away with so much for so long? Why, when she had a long history of bail-jumping, was she so often released on bond, only to disappear for years and to continue her abuses sometimes scant miles from her former haunts? How could authorities refuse to investigate the barbiturate-poisoning death of a woman she was supposedly providing care for, and later decline to investigate the shooting death of one of her husbands shortly after he had taken out large insurance policies? Why were so many of her welfare claim records lost? How could court after court after court present such sloppy prosecution cases that verdicts were repeatedly overturned?
This was not a criminal mastermind. This was a woman with a second-grade education, a massive amount of street-smarts, the ability to convince far too many people with wildly improbably and self-contradictory tales, absolutely no remorse over the lives she destroyed or the laws she broke, and probably the biggest set of balls ever to come out of Tennessee.
Her story stretches the bounds of probability, but Levin nails it down at every conceivable point, following her life to its sad and pathetic end. Not sure there’s a moral to this one, but it’s a stunning piece of work.