The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was stereotyped as ‘the welfare queen.’ The truth was more disturbing, a new book says.

Holding her hat against the wind, Linda Taylor leaves court in Chicago on Nov. 27, 1974. (Bettmann Archive)

It was January 1976. Ronald Reagan was on the campaign trail, hoping to challenge President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. The former California governor took the stage in Asheville, N.C., and started his stump speech.

The federal government was full of waste and abuse, he said, particularly in the public assistance realm. In his folksy style, he listed his alleged examples: People were buying T-bone steaks with food stamps; a housing project in New York City had 11-foot ceilings and a swimming pool. The audience chuckled along.

And then the humdinger: “In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare,” he said.

In fact, he said, “her tax-free cash income alone has been running at $150,000 a year.”

The audience gasped.

Reagan invoked the nameless woman frequently that year as he very nearly toppled Ford for the GOP spot. He continued to speak of her over the next four years in his popular radio commentaries, again on the campaign trail in 1980, and as president when he called on Congress to pass a welfare overhaul.

She became known as the “welfare queen.” The term was designed to conjure racist stereotypes of a single black mother living large on the taxpayers’ largesse, collecting government checks while bedecked in diamonds and driving a Cadillac.

Sometimes, journalists and political opponents challenged Reagan on his tale. In Jan. 29, 1986, The Washington Post quoted Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill telling Reagan, “I never did believe your story about the Chicago welfare queen.”

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But the so-called welfare queen was real. Her name was Linda Taylor, and she indeed owned a Cadillac, and several other cars, at the time she was arrested in 1974. She was a mixed-race woman who often told authorities she was white, Mexican or Hawaiian, according to Josh Levin, author of the new biography “The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth.”

Levin portrays Taylor as a lifelong con artist and thief who may have committed far more serious crimes, including kidnapping and murder.

Her prosecution for welfare fraud was fueled by politics, Levin argues in his deeply researched book.

“Linda Taylor … had as much in common with a typical welfare rule breaker as a bank robber does with someone who swipes a piece of penny candy,” Levin writes. Yet “Taylor’s mere existence gave credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes about poor people and black women.”

Linda Taylor was born Martha Louise White in 1926 in Golddust, Tenn., the result of her white mother’s affair with a black man. Though she was light-skinned, she was forbidden to go to the local white school. In 1940, at the age of 13 or 14, she had her first child.

Still in her teens, Taylor was arrested in 1943 in Seattle for disorderly conduct under the name Martha Davis. Thus began a dizzying trail of arrests, aliases, marriages and cross-state moves, painstakingly detailed by Levin.

In 1944, she was arrested for vagrancy as “Martha Gordon” in Port Orchard, Wash.; in 1945, malicious mischief as “Connie Reed” in Oakland, Calif.; in 1946, suspicion of prostitution as “Betty Smith” in Oakland.

In 1948, while “passing” as white, she married a Navy sailor named Paul Harbaugh. She had three more children in this period, one of whom had a darker complexion than the others. The marriage quickly unraveled.

In 1952, she married a drifter named Troy “Buddy” Elliott in Arkansas and had a fifth child. But Elliott’s family rejected her and her darker-skinned son, whom she eventually abandoned.

In 1959, Taylor, as “Connie Harbaugh,” filed a lawsuit in Peoria, Ill., alleging her children had been severely injured in a gas explosion at their school. The case was thrown out seven years later.

Taylor first made news in 1964, in Chicago, when she claimed to be the daughter of Lawrence Wakefield, a black man who, upon his death, was found to have more than $760,000 in cash in his home, a fortune earned in an underground gambling business. As “Constance Wakefield,” she sued to be named Wakefield’s sole heir. Her uncle and grandmother were flown in to testify against her.

The case that made her famous began in August 1974 when she called in a false burglary report to the Chicago Police Department. Officer Jack Sherwin didn’t believe her story and started poking around, eventually figuring out that she had a warrant in Michigan under the name Connie Green. When he arrested her, he found a cache of public aid identification cards under a variety of names. Writing his report on her myriad schemes, he called her by the name he guessed was right: Linda Taylor.

According to Levin, Sherwin had trouble interesting prosecutors in pursuing the case, so another officer leaked it to the Chicago Tribune.

The first story published on Sept. 29, 1974, under the headline “Cops find deceit—but no one cares.”

Within days, Taylor’s exploits were front-page material. In the following months, Levin counted more than 40 Tribune stories about the woman it dubbed the “welfare queen.”

The story hit the wires and went national. “Welfare and Pension Swindle Laid to Woman of Many Aliases,” the New York Times headline read. The Post reported her arrest on fraud charges that November. And in California, Levin says, a PR guy clipped a story about her for his boss, Gov. Ronald Reagan.

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Taylor was eventually convicted of theft and perjury and sentenced to three to seven years in prison. When she was released in 1980 after a little more than two years, no newspapers mentioned it, Levin says, even as Reagan was still telling the story of that “woman in Chicago.”

Perhaps most surprising are the crimes she wasn’t charged with, Levin writes.

One of Taylor’s sons told Sherwin, the police officer, that his mother bought and sold children on the black market; arrest reports often describe random children of varying races being present and neglected in Taylor’s homes. A niece told Levin that Taylor kidnapped her for days in 1976; police were called, but charges were never filed.

Taylor may have been the culprit in the infamous Paul Fronczak stolen baby case in 1964. According to later reports in the Tribune, an ex-husband told the FBI she appeared one day in the mid-1960s with a newborn baby, despite not having been pregnant, and that a woman using one of Taylor’s aliases was at the hospital the day of the crime. An ex-boyfriend also told police he saw her wearing a white uniform, just as the kidnapper was reportedly wearing, the day the baby was abducted.

She was also present for at least three suspicious deaths, Levin writes. One of them happened while awaiting trial in 1975; Taylor moved into the home of a woman named Patricia Parks. Within months, Parks had made Taylor the trustee of her estate and then died suddenly of a barbiturate overdose. Taylor was investigated but never charged.

When Levin interviewed Parks’s former husband in 2013, he said Levin was the first person to ask him about it; the police never did.

“All they said was, ‘That’s another black woman dead,’ ” he told Levin.

According to Levin, Linda Taylor continued running scams and changing names throughout the 1980s and 1990s, mostly in Florida, without ever again capturing the attention of the public. She died in a care facility near Chicago in 2002. The stigmatizing welfare queen stereotype lives on.

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