The following essay is adapted from The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, out now from Little, Brown. You can also listen to the podcast miniseries based on the book.
When she heard the buzzer at the front gate of Illinois’ Dwight Correctional Center on Feb. 16, 1978, Linda Taylor was 52 years old. In a photograph snapped two months later, prisoner A-87028 looked more defeated than frightened. An intake form listed her age as 39 and her race as black. Taylor had a “short-stocky” build, brown eyes, and “black/dyed blonde” hair. Her occupation was “minister.”
Taylor had been sentenced to three to seven years in state prison after being convicted of welfare fraud and perjury. While her trial had been held in 1977, she’d been a villain since 1974, when the Chicago Tribune detailed her brazen theft of government checks and nicknamed her the “welfare queen.” Ronald Reagan had used this one-off story to argue that the welfare system was beset by Taylor-like cheaters. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, that claim would imperil millions of people who received public aid.
After her sentencing, Taylor’s fate was in the hands of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, the body that would eventually decide whether to grant Taylor parole. In April 1978, the board received an official statement of facts from a Cook County state’s attorney. Taylor was “a nationally known welfare cheat” and “a career criminal,” the prosecutor said. He advised that she be locked up for the full seven years, “the maximum period allowable by law.”
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Despite arrests dating back to the 1940s, Taylor had never served a long stint in prison. At Dwight, she wouldn’t be required to wear a uniform—in that prison photograph, she had on a collared shirt with a paisley print—and she wouldn’t spend her nights behind bars. The state penitentiary, located roughly halfway between Chicago and Peoria on a property laden with oaks and spruces, looked like a country club or a college campus. Dwight boarded its occupants in mock-medieval “cottages,” most of which had been built in the 1920s. Though they looked fancy on the outside, the cottages had balky plumbing and inadequate heat, and up to five women got crammed into each small bedroom. For a time, the guards banned their charges from touching each other, and women suspected of lesbianism were isolated in a high-security unit. “Tell all the people out there that this isn’t fun; it’s not exciting or interesting,” a prisoner told the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1979. Another said, “All this place does is teach you how to really hate.”
Linda Taylor essentially disappeared from public view once she passed through the prison’s front gate. The politicians and journalists who lavished attention on her welfare thievery while she was still a free woman turned their attention elsewhere once she got sent to Dwight. In March 1979, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a short item reporting that she had a “minor violation on her prison record—she allegedly used state-owned materials to make cushions and sell them.” No other major outlet would write a single story about what had become of Chicago’s original welfare queen.
The Chicago Tribune may have lost interest in Linda Taylor when she went to prison, but the newspaper didn’t forget about the prosecutor who sent the welfare queen away. In the aftermath of his successful prosecution of Taylor, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had put Jim Piper in charge of a dedicated welfare fraud division. On Feb. 16, 1978, the same day Taylor entered Dwight Correctional Center, the Tribune reported that Piper’s unit had won 77 indictments since its inception the previous fall. Three days later, the assistant state’s attorney was quoted in a story chiding the Cook County courts for being “soft” on welfare cheaters. “These people are crying in front of the judge but laughing all the way to the bank,” he said.
Piper’s cause was arguably a righteous one: He was going after men and women who stole taxpayer money, with a specific focus on civil servants who collected both government salaries and government benefits. Among the people his division indicted in April 1979, the Tribune wrote, were “11 employed by the State of Illinois, 8 by the Chicago Board of Education, 7 by Cook County Hospital, and one by the City of Chicago.”
While Piper was happy to push this anti-corruption storyline, the nation’s best-known welfare fraud prosecutor also recognized the importance of going after big, media-luring targets—the kind that would keep the public excited about locking up chiselers. Arlene Otis, a 30-year-old black criminal justice graduate student who’d purportedly stolen in excess of $100,000 in public aid money, was just the type to stoke those feelings of righteous indignation.
Although Piper had won the Linda Taylor case, he knew that it hadn’t been a perfect prosecution. In pursuing Taylor’s successor—a woman touted as “the new welfare queen” by both the state’s attorney’s office and the Tribune—he looked to fix the mistakes he’d made the first time out. Illinois officials had believed Taylor had a tax-free cash income of $150,000 a year, but she’d been convicted of thieving a tiny fraction of that amount; the charges against Otis, by contrast, reflected the full scope of her alleged actions. For Piper, it had also been vexing to watch Taylor keep getting released on bail; this go-round, he made sure Otis stayed locked up on a $200,000 bond. And while it took more than three years for Taylor to go from arrest to incarceration, Otis traveled the same path in just eight months. In January 1979, Piper reached a plea deal with Otis’ lawyer, and the new welfare queen was sentenced to four years in state prison. Like her forebear, she’d serve that time at Dwight Correctional Center.
Otis, too, had her own successor, a purveyor of frozen treats the Tribune called the “Ice Cream Welfare Queen.” That woman, Joyce Williams, reportedly collected almost $11,500 in public aid even as she lived in a luxury apartment building on South Lake Shore Drive and “drove a $23,000 imported automobile.” She was held on $100,000 bond in August 1978 after supposedly fleeing to Mississippi and opening another ice cream parlor. Piper also prosecuted Chicago’s next “new welfare queen,” Hope Beaty, who was denied bail in 1980 after being charged “with illegally collecting $150,682 in checks, $49,858 in food stamps, and $8,844 in medical payments.”
The bail rulings in these high-profile fraud cases—the six-figure bonds given to Otis and Williams, and Beaty getting held without any bond at all—signaled that the Cook County courts were in the grip of a kind of anti–welfare queen hysteria. The Tribune didn’t criticize this or any other practice undertaken by Piper’s welfare fraud unit. It would be unfair, though, to say the newspaper lacked compassion for Chicago’s poor. In its annual drives for the city’s Neediest Families Christmas Fund, the Tribune urged its readers to give money to the city’s most pitiable welfare recipients: Gloria Diaz, a diabetic mother with three small daughters; John Larkin, an elderly man with an artificial leg and paralyzed arm; and Margueritte Gillian, who took care of foster children until being felled by illness, “has not received her last two [public aid] checks in the mail,” and “has no family to help her through these hard times.”
In the enormous chasm between Linda Taylor and Margueritte Gillian were untold numbers of people who neglected to report outside income that might render them ineligible for government assistance. All of them were cheaters by the letter of the law, and the Tribune rarely if ever defended them. In 1980, the magazine Chicago Lawyer published an in-depth feature about one of these supposedly hardened criminals, a black woman named Dorothy Holder who collected $4,730.95 in public aid while working for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Holder, who’d dropped out of high school to help support her family, had to stop working temporarily at age 36 because of a prolonged hospitalization. She’d then earned a bachelor’s degree, began to pursue a master’s, and got a job with the state, failing to get off the public aid rolls immediately upon finding full-time work. Holder learned that she’d been indicted when a friend told her that her name was in the newspaper—she was the 11th of 27 Chicagoans on a list of those accused of “bilking the welfare system.” For the state’s attorney’s office and the Tribune, these directories of alleged wrongdoers—each person charged was identified by name, age, address, and place of employment—served the dual purpose of publicly shaming supposed welfare thieves and alerting the cheater-hating masses that the city was overrun by leeches.
Holder admitted she’d made a mistake—“I don’t want to sound like ‘Miss Goody Two-Shoes,’ because that’s not the case,” she told Chicago Lawyer—but pleaded to be seen as someone who was trying to do the right thing. “I wanted to work it out so that once I got off public aid I would never have to go that route again,” she said. “They kept saying in court that I was a well-educated woman, but they failed to realize how I had to fight to be well educated. I was trying to survive. I was not doing it to buy cars and fancy clothes.”
Judge Thomas J. Maloney didn’t listen to anything Holder said. He rejected her request that she be allowed to repay the money she’d taken, and he ignored testimony from her boss and co-workers that she was a woman of high character. On Dec. 7, 1979, Maloney ordered Holder to prison for one to five years for what he termed a “clever, conniving, callous rip-off of the taxpayers’ money,” arguing that if she was “retained on the state payroll, Holder could, and probably would, steal again.” Years later, the judge who lectured Dorothy Holder on morality would spend 12 years behind bars after being convicted of fixing multiple murder trials in exchange for cash.
While Linda Taylor’s “welfare queen” successors were getting demonized on the outside, Taylor’s hitch in prison passed by relatively uneventfully. Her file with the parole board contained just one disciplinary report, a document detailing an incident that took place 19 months into her sentence. One afternoon in September 1979, a guard conducting a “routine shakedown following a visit” found a plastic package inside Taylor’s bra. That pouch contained 20 pink pills—a more potent heart medication, one not stocked by the prison pharmacy, than the one prescribed to her for what by all indications was a real affliction. Taylor said she hadn’t known the contraband was in her bra and suggested that she may have been “set up by correctional guards.” She also requested that a man named Willtrue Loyd be allowed to speak at her disciplinary hearing, falsely claiming that he was her father. In November 1979, state authorities would revoke a handful of Taylor’s good conduct credits, delaying her eventual release by 15 days.
The following month, as Taylor neared her first possible parole date, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office reiterated its view that she should remain in prison for seven years. Taylor, the chief of the felony trial division wrote, “will no doubt resume criminal activity immediately upon her release.” The state’s attorneys, who had used the Taylor case as the impetus to ramp up their prosecution of welfare cheaters, also made the perverse argument that she should be punished for giving public aid recipients a bad reputation.
This “Welfare Queen,” as appropriately titled by the media has preyed on society and government since 1944. Her actions and others of her ilk, deprive decent citizens who may need welfare as a temporary measure, of the sympathy of taxpayers who contribute to that support, and who have become disenchanted with the ever increasing tax burden required to meet those needs. Her actions have tainted the legitimate recipients to the point where taxpayers believe all recipients are out to “get all they can.”
The parole board didn’t listen to the prosecutors’ advice. Taylor, whom the state could’ve kept under lock and key until 1985, was released from prison on April 11, 1980—two years, one month, and 26 days after she’d entered Dwight Correctional Center.
A year later, Taylor’s parole officer reported that she was married and living on the North Side of Chicago. Although Taylor had planned to “be self-employed with sewing and crocheting for customers,” a “variety of illnesses and ailments” had left her unemployed. Consequently, she was receiving $186 per month in public aid.
As of April 1981, the parole officer wrote, Linda Taylor was older and wiser. “At age 50,” the parole officer said of the 55-year-old Taylor, she “displays no inclinations to return to the criminal acts that caused her incarceration.” A few weeks later, on May 26, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board granted Taylor her final discharge. The members of the parole board decreed that she no longer posed a threat to society, and they said that she’d remain at liberty without violating the law. They were wrong on both counts.
By Josh Levin. Little, Brown and Company.
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