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Linda Taylor was surrounded. On Feb. 25, 1976, a phalanx of cameras converged on the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” outside her latest court hearing. Taylor, who’d been charged with dozens of counts of theft and perjury, was wearing a full-length black fur coat as she strode purposefully away from the Chicago Civic Center. A member of the press shouted, “How’d you do, Linda?” She hesitated for a second before spitting back her answer: “Well, compared to some of you white people, I think I done pretty damn good to be black.”
The transaction was complete. Taylor got to show she was unbowed. The camera crews got the sound bite they needed from the nation’s most colorful villain—the woman who, Ronald Reagan declared repeatedly during his 1976 presidential run, had stolen an astounding $150,000 in public aid money in a single year. What the cameras didn’t see was the detective trailing behind the crowd. Jack Sherwin was planning to arrest Taylor for burglary.
When the detective entered Taylor’s South Side apartment later that day, he found an electric can opener and a portable color television, both of which had been reported stolen. He also found a pair of children, a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old, who were dressed in tattered clothes and appeared downcast and dirty. They were obvious victims of neglect—there weren’t even beds for them to sleep in.
Sherwin had been on Taylor’s trail for more than a year. He’d been the one to find multiple welfare identification cards in her home, instigating her arrest and prosecution for stealing government checks. Sherwin had also suspected that Taylor was responsible for more serious crimes. But despite what he saw in her apartment that day, Sherwin wouldn’t be able to change the public narrative around the Chicago welfare queen.
These two scenes, the one caught by the cameras and the one the detective found behind closed doors, capture how the story of Linda Taylor was and wasn’t told. Taylor’s brash attitude and flashy clothes made her an easy target for politicians and journalists. And yet, her most troubling acts drew little interest or attention.
The more I learned about these distortions and elisions, the more important I thought it was to assemble a fuller, more honest account of Taylor’s life. In 2013, I published a piece in Slate laying out how she’d been fashioned into the “welfare queen,” and how her non-welfare-related crimes—kidnappings and even possibly murders—were ignored. That essay left a bunch of big questions unresolved. Why was it this woman who became the template for a vicious, racist stereotype? Where did she come from, and what were the forces that shaped her? Who was the real Linda Taylor?
I’ve spent the past six years trying to answer those questions. My new book The Queen, as well as my podcast of the same name, explains how the Taylor legend began and fleshes out the real person behind one of our country’s most enduring symbols of sloth and greed. In the podcast, you’ll hear how a journalist who specialized in exposing government corruption introduced Taylor to the world, causing more damage with his coverage than he may have ever realized. You’ll also hear how Taylor made life difficult for those trying to defend her. As one of the attorneys who represented her in the 1970s told me, “She needed to be able to thumb her nose at society. … There was this need to be defiant.”
Taylor never gave a full accounting of who she was and what she’d done, and her chroniclers showed more interest in caricaturing Taylor than in finding her humanity. This podcast is an attempt to address those gaps in the historical record. Taylor was bold: She once made a brazen play for a Chicago gambling kingpin’s fortune. She was cruel: She kidnapped her husband’s niece, a little girl who’d loved and trusted her Aunt Linda. She could also be heroic, as I found in speaking to a family she helped rescue from the indignities of the Jim Crow South.
Linda Taylor was a villain and a victim, and she abused others just as she was abused. When she was cast as a public enemy, her villainy assumed a very specific form. The “welfare queen” was a lazy, black con artist getting rich on the public dime—a symbol of unearned prosperity and of the injustices being perpetrated against hardworking, law-abiding American taxpayers. In reality, Taylor wasn’t emblematic of anything. The truth about her is messy, and it doesn’t lend itself to simple lessons. But her story is still worth telling, no matter how messy it may be.