During Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, he began telling a story about a woman from Chicago who used dozens of aliases to defraud government welfare agencies so that she could drive a Cadillac and live large. In his successful 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan again frequently referred to the so-called “welfare queen,” and he continued to do so in his policy discussions with Congress after his election. The implication was that there were thousands, maybe millions, like her ripping off the government and avoiding gainful employment. The system was broken, and he was going to fix it or end it.
Progressives and fact-checkers resisted these attacks on public assistance and railed against the stereotype Reagan was putting forward. Some thought the welfare queen was a figment of the president’s imagination. She wasn’t. Her name—one of her names—was Linda Taylor.
Josh Levin, the editorial director of Slate and host of the weekly sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” spent six years interviewing people who knew her and poring over the court and police records that trailed behind her. The story he tells is in some ways worse than Reagan could have imagined.
The Queen reveals a woman who assumed at least 30 identities to become one of the most astonishing con artists on record. She sometimes claimed to be white, or black, or Hawaiian, or Mexican. In her middle age, she convinced her most recent of six or eight husbands that she was decades younger than she actually was. She abandoned her children on many occasions. She didn’t just fraudulently apply for welfare; she conned insurance agencies, probably bought and sold young children to further her schemes, and may have murdered one of her husbands, as well as another woman who was under her spiritual care.
It’s a wild story. But that’s not the only story Levin tells here. With careful sleuthing, he tracks Taylor back to Tennessee in 1926 and to the birth of Martha Louise White, daughter of an unmarried white teenager and an unnamed black man when such unions were illegal in many states. Martha’s (that is, Taylor’s) mother would eventually claim her daughter was a foundling. At 6 she was kicked out of an all-white school. “No one wanted to lay claim to Martha Louise White,” Levin writes with sympathy. Themes of rejection, racial confusion and possible mental illness create a strong undercurrent beneath this fascinating story.
Much is murky about Linda Taylor’s life. But one thing is certain: She wasn’t a stereotype. She was one of a kind.