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The Chicago press covered Linda Taylor’s 1977 trial extensively, and she dressed to court the cameras.
Charles Knoblock/Associated Press

Reagan’s ‘Welfare Queen’ Was a Real Person

Her Story Is Bananas

Back in the 80s, Ronald Reagan paid a lot of rhetorical attention to the story of an anonymous “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac and lived high on the taxpayer’s dime. For those who knew her decades ago, Linda Taylor was a terrifying figure.

The life and times of “Linda Taylor” (in quotes because that’s only one of her many, many aliases),is the real woman who served as the basis for Reagan’s story. Taylor really did drive a Cadillac and perpetrate a decent amount of welfare fraud. But her story isn’t really representative of the typical sort of welfare fraud — let alone the typical welfare recipient, in general. In fact, Taylor was the sort of person that gets armchair diagnosed as a sociopath. She spent most of her life grifting somebody and was possibly involved in the deaths of multiple people.

She was a woman who destroyed lives, someone far more depraved than even Ronald Reagan could have imagined. In the 1970s alone, Taylor was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking. The detective who tried desperately to put her away believes she’s responsible for one of Chicago’s most legendary crimes, one that remains unsolved to this day. Welfare fraud was likely the least of the welfare queen’s offenses.

Reagan told the story of a benefit stealing “welfare queen” to argue for smaller, leaner government. Liberals have complained about the generalization ever since. It turns out there was a real welfare queen, and that name was given to her by the Chicago Tribune, not Ronald Reagan.

Though Reagan was known to stretch the truth, he did not invent that woman in Chicago. Her name was Linda Taylor, and it was the Chicago Tribune, not the GOP politician, who dubbed her the “welfare queen.” It was the Tribune, too, that lavished attention on Taylor’s jewellery, furs, and Cadillac—all of which were real. To collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four non-existent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone had been running $150,000 a year.

In October of the same year, her fraud had escalated. She has used 127 names, so far, posed as a mother of 14 children at one time, 7 at another and, once while on welfare, posed as an open-heart surgeon, complete with office.

In  1976, Taylor had yet to be convicted of anything. She was facing charges that she’d bilked the government out of $8,000 using four aliases. When the welfare queen stood trial the next year, reporters packed the courtroom. Rather than try to win sympathy, Taylor seemed to enjoy playing the scofflaw. As witnesses described her brazen pilfering from public coffers, she remained impassive, an unrepentant defendant bedecked in expensive clothes and oversize hats.

Linda Taylor, the haughty thief who drove her Cadillac to the public aid office, was the embodiment of a pernicious stereotype. With her story, Reagan marked millions of America’s poorest people as potential scoundrels and fostered the belief that welfare fraud was a nationwide epidemic that needed to be stamped out. This image of grand and rampant welfare fraud allowed Reagan to sell voters on his cuts to public assistance spending. The “welfare queen” became a convenient villain, a woman everyone could hate. She was a lazy black con artist, unashamed of cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.

After her welfare fraud trial in 1977, Taylor went to prison, and the newspapers moved on to covering the next outlandish villain. When her sentence was up, she changed her name and left Chicago, and the cops who had pursued her in Illinois lost track of her whereabouts. None of the police officers knew whether she was still alive.

The Welfare Queen was real. She just isn’t an example of the typical person on welfare. She was a singular monster.

While 1970s news stories about Taylor, who has more aliases than you can count, focused on her Cadillac and various attempts to game the system, she was actually a much more dangerous criminal. According to Levin’s investigation, she regularly bought and sold babies, some of whom have never been found. Those that knew her and lived with her think she was responsible for the famous Fronczak baby kidnapping during the 1960s.

She was also accused of murder. Patricia Parks-Lee, a child that Taylor nannied in the 1970s, insists that Taylor slowly killed her mother by feeding her barbiturates.

In the 1970s, it was possible for the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Defender to make Linda Taylor a national figure while her specific exploits remained local knowledge. This is how, in the days before the Web abetted the flow of information, Ronald Reagan could tell stories about a real woman and be accused of conjuring a fictional character. And its how, after Taylor’s brief window of infamy closed all the disturbing allegations that had been raised in the mid-1970s just faded away.

To the Right, Taylor was an egregious example of the broken welfare system. To the Left, she was a character made up to embody racial fears.

If Taylor was a character in a movie, people would dismiss her as an implausibility. She really did bilk various government programs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. She also burned through husbands, sometimes more than one at a time. She was a master of disguise, armed with dozens of wigs. She flipped through assumed and fake identities and employed 33 known aliases. She enchanted and charmed some of her marks, while others were deathly afraid of her.

The “welfare queen” Reagan employed to stereotype a nation of black folks was actually one real woman named Martha Louise White (Maybe?) who may or may not have been white, and a murderer.

Taylor’s own racial reality is much hard to pin down, however. Born Martha Miller, she was listed as white in the 1930 Census, just like everyone else in her family. But she had darker skin and darker hair. People who knew her family told Levin that she had Native American ancestry. One of her husbands, who was black, said she could look like an Asian woman at times. Another earlier husband and ostensible father to some of her children was white, and during that marriage she gave birth to kids who alternately appeared black, unmistakably white, or racially ambiguous. At times she posed as a Jewish woman. In one photo, she has long, blonde hair.

“She was white according to official records and in the view of certain family members who couldn’t imagine it any other way,” Levin writes. ” She was black (or colored, or a Negro) when it suited her needs, or when someone saw a woman they didn’t think, or didn’t want to think, could possibly be Caucasian.”

To people who were opposed to welfare, Taylor’s colourful transgressions were evidence of just how little oversight there was in the program and how easily it could be abused. (In reality, Taylor stole her money from a host of government services, and defrauded private individuals, too.)

White, who used a lot of aliases, is known mostly as Linda Taylor in the story. She defrauded pretty much every government agency — social security, food stamps, Medicaid, and Aid to Families With Dependent Children — married a multitude of different men as under various names, liked to commit insurance fraud, knew her way around child kidnapping and trafficking and might’ve pulled off one of Chicago’s biggest unsolved crimes, the kidnapping of baby Paul Joseph Fronczak.

Isaiah Gant, who has been an attorney for nearly four decades, says his onetime client “was a scam artist like I have never run across since.” Gant, now an assistant federal public defender in Nashville, Tenn., says Taylor could change personalities in an instant. “If she wanted to be a ho, she could be a ho. If she wanted to be a princess, she could be a princess,” he says. “The woman was smooth.”

 A Chicago cop named Jack Sherwin originally began piecing together the scope of her crimes when he was called to the scene of a robbery. Oddly, the female victim — who claimed to have been robbed of her furs, cash and valuables — seemed familiar. Sherwin discovered that he had met Taylor before, when she tried this insurance scam two years earlier across town using a different name, different house and different hair. That coincidence prompted him to dig into Taylor and she was eventually brought up on charges of welfare fraud.

In late September 1974, seven weeks after Sherwin met Taylor for the second time, the detective’s findings made the Chicago Tribune. “Linda Taylor received Illinois welfare checks and food stamps, even though she was driving three 1974 autos—a Cadillac, a Lincoln, and a Chevrolet station wagon—claimed to own four South Side buildings, and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner George Bliss. The story detailed a 14-page report that Sherwin had put together illuminating “a lifestyle of false identities that seemed calculated to confuse our computerized, credit-oriented society.” There was evidence that the 47-year-old Taylor had used three social security cards, 27 names, 31 addresses, and 25 phone numbers to fuel her mischief, not to mention 30 different wigs.

Taylor attended her court dates in a Cadillac, sporting full-length fur coats and sparkly jewels. She remained stone-faced in the court room and refused to speak to reporters after the trial. In 1978, she was began her sentence in Illinois’ Dwight Correctional Center for some of her crimes.

But as the story continues, the details just get more twisted, here are some snippets:

When she tried pretending to be Constance Wakefield, the daughter of Chicago gambling kingpin Lawrence Wakefield to inherit his fortune after his death, her real uncle Hubert Mooney from Arkansas came to an Illinois court to testify that she was his niece, Martha Louise White.

For Hubert Mooney, who died in 2009, this was a jarring experience. His daughter Joan Shefferd says Mooney was from a different era, and that he was a very prejudiced man. Taylor’s behaviour, she says, made her father angrier than she’d ever seen him. His niece’s lying and scheming were one thing, but there was something else he’d never understand. Why was Martha Louise White passing herself off as a black woman?

She seemed to have had four biological children who appeared both white and black, which riled up racial tension as she and her kids moved from place to place in the South. Eventually she dropped off the darkest child with a family and never returned for him, according to her son Johnnie Taylor.

Cliff left home in his early teenage years, Johnnie says, and then it was just him, Paul, and Sandra.

It was them against the world—and often them against their mother. Johnnie says Taylor was not a loving person. She used to beat him, he says, because “I was the odd one”—a white child who saw himself as a black sheep.

When Chicago prosecutors unmasked Constance Wakefield in 1964, they revealed that she’d been charged in Oakland with (among other things) contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Later, in Arizona and Illinois, she’d have children taken from her after police found signs of neglect. Throughout her life, wherever she went, she was always picking up children and losing them, other people’s and her own. When Johnnie was young, he says, his mother would often hand her kids over to friends, family, and tenuous acquaintances, with no indication of when or if she’d return. In the mid-1950s, she left Paul with a black family in Missouri. After a brief reunion, she left him again, this time with a family in Chicago. His siblings wouldn’t see Paul again for many years.

Still, she would randomly acquire children from nowhere, who would disappear just as quickly.

Her son Johnnie believes his mother saw children as commodities, something to be acquired and sold. He remembers a little black girl—he doesn’t know her name—who stayed with them for a few months in the early 1960s, “and then she just disappeared one day.” Shortly before Lawrence Wakefield died, Johnnie says, a white baby named Tiger showed up out of nowhere, and then left the household just as mysteriously. I ask him if he knew where these kids came from or who they belonged to. “You knew they wasn’t hers,” he says.

And that might’ve included the still missing Fronczak baby.

The extent of Taylor’s lies and the ostentatious way she committed them made her the perfect face for arguments about profligate welfare cheats. But compared to the constellation of offenses Taylor may have committed or abetted, her fraud looks almost tame.

There were the kidnappings. For years, Taylor would take children from parents who made the mistake of trusting her. She was even suspected in the Fronczak kidnapping, one of the most notorious child abductions of the 1960s. In that case, a woman dressed as a nurse snatched a newborn baby and fled.

Johnnie says his mother often claimed that she worked in a hospital, and that she’d wear a nurse’s hat. Rose Termini, without any prompting, begins the narrative of her son’s kidnapping by saying that Taylor “once told me she was a nurse and she got around a lot with kids.” According to Termini, Taylor would often dress in a white uniform—she says she saw the getup with her own eyes.

In 1977, a man named Samuel Harper told police prior to Taylor’s sentencing for welfare fraud that he believed she had kidnapped Paul Joseph Fronczak. He explained that he was living with her at the time, that several other white infants were in her home, and that she left the house in a white uniform on the day of the kidnapping.

Later that month, the Tribune revealed that Taylor had reportedly told police in 1967 “that she had given birth to a boy in Edgewater Hospital on Dec. 13, 1963—four months before the birth and kidnapping of the Fronczak baby. That child, she said, was living with foster parents in Chicago Heights.” Police discovered that the birth certificate for this supposed baby was signed by Dr. Grant Sill—the same doctor who … had agreed to stop practicing medicine in 1970 to avoid prosecution on charges of “selling dangerous drug prescriptions to youngsters.”

Johnnie’s not even sure White/Taylor was his real mother.

“I might have even been somebody else’s kid,” he says. “She might have grabbed me when I was a baby.” He thinks it’s likely he was stolen, that he belongs to someone else. “I’ve always felt like that, even as a kid, even as far back as I can remember.”

And she most likely killed a woman named Patricia Parks, while convincing the dying woman to sign over her own children and worldly possession to Taylor.

Taylor told the funeral director that Patricia Parks had cervical cancer. When her blood was drawn at the funeral home, however, the sample contained a high level of barbiturates. On Parks’ death certificate, the coroner indicated that she had died of “combined phenobarbital, methapyrilene, and salicylate intoxication.” There is no indication that she had cancer.

“She killed my mother,” Parks-Lee says. She’s so sure about what Linda Taylor did that she says it three more times: “She killed my mother. She killed my mother. I just, I mean—she killed my mother.”

And there were the deaths. Taylor posed as a voodoo practitioner and spiritual adviser, and after one or Taylor’s particularly naive marks during that scheme turned up dead, Taylor was found with the dead woman’s credit card. But police investigators didn’t go after Taylor on murder charges, because they were worried it would detract from an ongoing welfare fraud case.

Testimony from a 1964 probate hearing for the estate of Lawrence Wakefield, which Taylor was trying to claim, indicated that she was born around 1926 in Summit, Alabama, under the name Martha Louise White. However, she denied being Martha Louise White.

She has been identified from United States Census records as being Martha Miller, born in Tennessee sometime between 1925 and 1927, to Joe and Lidy Miller. In either case she was identified as being white, possibly with some Native American ancestry, although throughout her life she presented herself as being of various racial and ethnic identities, including Black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish. She also represented herself as being many different ages, with one government official stating in 1974 that “it appears she can be any age she wishes, from the early 20s to the early 50s.”

Although she became famous under the name ‘Linda Taylor’, news reports indicated that she used as many as 80 different names, often with false identification documents to match. Her aliases included ‘Linda Bennett’, ‘Connie Jarvis’, ‘Linda Jones’, ‘Constance Loyd’, ‘Linda Lynch’, ‘Linda Mallexo’, ‘Linda Ray’, ‘Constance Rayne’, ‘Linda Sholvia’, ‘Linda Taylor’, ‘Constance Wakefield’, and ‘Connie Walker’. Her many identities included using the title ‘Reverend’ and posing as a nurse, a doctor, and a spiritual adviser who used Haitian Vodou.

The Tribune printed so many incredible stories about Linda Taylor that it really wasn’t necessary for Reagan to exaggerate the figures. As he’d said, Taylor had posed in Michigan as a heart surgeon named Dr. Connie Walker and, in the Tribune’s telling, “drove a new Cadillac bearing the physicians’ staff and serpent on both doors and the word ‘Afri-med’ on the rear.” According to other accounts, she allegedly practiced voodoo and had traveled to Jamaica after being released from jail. In September 1975, Taylor’s son-in-law and her daughter Sandra were indicted for getting fraudulent Aid to Families With Dependent Children payments. A month later, with Taylor out on bond and awaiting trial for welfare fraud, she told police that two men with guns had barged into her apartment and stolen $17,000 in jewelry—a crime reminiscent of those phony burglaries that led the Chicago police to start digging into her tangled life.

In February 1976, Jack Sherwin dropped in on Taylor’s home to deal with yet another burglary case. This time, Chicago’s welfare queen was the alleged perpetrator, not the victim. Taylor allegedly had snatched $800 worth of items from a woman she’d been living with. The police found the victim’s electric can opener, color TV, and fur coat squirreled away in Taylor’s apartment building, though a three-piece polka-dot pantsuit was not recovered. The officers also found two small children living in squalid conditions. The boys, a white 7-year-old and a black 5-year-old, were taken into protective custody.

The subsequent news stories focused on Taylor’s car, which was impounded because she’d allegedly used it in the commission of the crime. The headline in the New York Times: “ ‘Welfare Queen’ Loses Her Cadillac Limousine.” The newspapers did not mention all the other evidence found in Taylor’s home.

On August 8, 1974, Taylor filed a police report claiming that she had been robbed of $14,000 in “cash, jewelry, and furs”.Chicago Detective Jack Sherwin, who took the report, recognized her from a similar, previous report and suspected her of insurance fraud.Upon investigating her, Sherwin discovered Taylor was wanted on welfare fraud charges in Michigan. She was arrested at the end of August 1974 for possible extradition to Michigan. Released on bond, she fled the state and was a fugitive until October 9, 1974, when she was caught in Tucson, Arizona.

Upon her return to Illinois, prosecutors opened a 31-count indictment against her for fraud, perjury and bigamy, alleging that she had received welfare and Social Security checks under multiple names.Her attorney, R. Eugene Pincham, managed to delay the trial until March 1977, by which time the charges had been considerably reduced. Initial allegations involving 80 aliases and over $100,000 in fraudulently obtained funds had been narrowed to charges involving just $8,000 obtained through four aliases, and perjury in her testimony before a grand jury. The bigamy charges were dropped. After a trial lasting less than three weeks, the jury deliberated for about seven hours before finding her guilty on March 17, 1977. She was sentenced to imprisonment for two to six years on the welfare fraud charges, and a year on the perjury charges, to be served consecutively. She began her sentence at Dwight Correctional Center on February 16, 1978.

After being released from prison, Taylor rejoined Sherman Ray, whom she had married prior to her imprisonment. On August 25, 1983, Ray was shot by Willtrue Loyd, in what was ruled to be an accident. Taylor collected on Ray’s life insurance. Loyd and Taylor moved to Florida and subsequently married in March 1986. When Loyd died in 1992, Taylor (under the alias ‘Linda Lynch’) was listed as his next of kin, but claimed to be his granddaughter rather than his wife. Taylor died of a heart attack on April 18, 2002, at Ingalls Memorial Hospital outside Chicago. Her remains were cremated.

Linda Taylor was likely a psychopath who was never held accountable for her worst crimes. But in the 1970s, when she became part of a national debate, she had defenders who saw her as a victim:

For much of the 1970s, Taylor had consistent legal representation from celebrated black Chicago attorney R. Eugene Pincham. In the run-up to Taylor’s welfare fraud trial, Pincham–who managed to delay the proceedings for years, winning continuance after continuance–positioned his client as a victim of coldhearted, overreaching prosecutors. “It would be a pretty sorry situation if the state tried to prosecute and send to jail everybody from the South Side that took welfare money they didn’t have coming,” he told the Tribune in 1976. “There’d just be nowhere to put them.” Prosecutors, meanwhile, called Taylor a “parasitic growth,” a leech who gleefully extracted taxpayers’ money.

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