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When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976, he railed against the welfare state. He portrayed it as a broken system, rife with fraud and abuse. And he singled out one woman to make his case.
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BLOCK: The so-called welfare queen became an enduring trope in the debate over welfare. Some liberals called the story bogus, a fiction. Well, now, Josh Levin of the online magazine Slate has investigated. He's turned up the sordid history of a woman who was very much real. And as he tells it, Taylor's welfare fraud was dwarfed by far more serious crimes, including possible child abduction and murder. Josh, welcome to the program.
JOSH LEVIN: Thanks, Melissa.
BLOCK: You call this woman Linda Taylor in your story. That was one of her aliases. But she was also Connie Harbaugh, Martha Miller, Sandra Brownlee, Reverend Linda Ray. She had dozens of aliases over the year and a lot of things about her are unclear, including her race. What do we know about her?
LEVIN: So we know that she was a woman whose life was about obfuscation. She was someone who had a different name, a different race, a different age often for everyone that she would encounter. You know, it was an interesting editorial decision in the piece, what do you call this woman? We decided to go with Linda Taylor because that's what she was known as at the height of her infamy. But to say that that was her consistent identity would not be true.
BLOCK: Doesn't begin to touch it. This story was covered at great length in Chicago back in the '70s by The Chicago Tribune. They revealed that Linda Taylor drove a Cadillac. She had a mink coat, posed as a heart surgeon. What else was known at the time?
LEVIN: She was, as Reagan said in that clip, someone who used a lot of different aliases, someone who had a lot of different addresses, someone who had a lot of different phone numbers and that was to abet public aid fraud. And that's really what the Tribune focused on. They also wrote about some other things that she was accused of, including kidnapping, including possible homicide. And they focused on things like her alleged voodoo practice and just other things to make her seem like a very outlandish character.
BLOCK: And somehow these more heinous crimes didn't get the attention that the welfare fraud case did. And there was one in particular - one case in particular you found that she'd been investigated for baby trafficking, kidnapping babies, possibly selling them. And it included a notorious case going back to 1964. It was the kidnapping of the Fronczak baby from a Chicago hospital. What happened?
LEVIN: There was a woman named Dora Fronczak and she had her child taken from her arms very soon after he was born. A woman in a white uniform came into the room and said a doctor needed to examine the child. The woman was seen leaving the hospital from a rear exit. There was a manhunt. This became a national cause celebre. Nine months later, it was reported that 35,000 people had been interviewed. The woman in the white uniform was never found. The child has never been found to this day, 50 years later. But Linda Taylor was investigated as a suspect in the 1970s.
BLOCK: And is there any proof that she was, in fact, the woman who kidnapped that baby?
LEVIN: There's circumstantial evidence, people who said that she would claim that she was a nurse. Her son told me that there would be children in the house that he knew were not hers and that would leave mysteriously. When she was sentenced for welfare fraud in 1977, around the time of that hearing, a man who lived with her told prosecutors that she had taken the Fronczak baby, that he believed it very strongly, that she had left the house wearing a nurse's uniform the day of the kidnapping. So there's not definitive proof, but there's a lot of things that make you wonder.
BLOCK: Josh, you write in your story in Slate that Linda Taylor was implicated in at least two suspicious deaths of women and one of them was a mother of three in Chicago whom Taylor had moved in with. But somehow, again, that death didn't get attention. And you put it this way, a murder in Chicago is mundane. A sumptuously attired woman stealing from John Q. Taxpayer is a menace.
LEVIN: Yeah. Linda Taylor moved in with this family. And I talked to the daughter of the woman who ended up dying. And she described how Linda basically took over their lives, that everything changed, that they had had, like, kind of well-to-do childhood. And then very quickly, they didn't have anything to eat. Her mother was getting sick. And then, less than a year later, she was dead. And on her death certificate, the cause is consumption of barbiturates. They took a blood sample and they found that she had a very high amount of these drugs in her system. Chicago police looked into this. The Cook County State's Attorney's Office looked into this.
I was told that they believe that there was some chicanery there, that they believed that Linda Taylor was probably responsible for this woman's death, but they just didn't feel like they had the evidence to connect her to the crime, that they didn't feel like a jury would have enough to convict her. And there was also a concern that she was actually out on bail for welfare fraud at this time when all of this was happening, this alleged homicide. There was concern that it would be perceived that they were bringing her up on homicide charges in order to get more publicity for the welfare case and that they thought it might jeopardize that case to bring these additional charges.
BLOCK: So somehow, the welfare case became the thing that they were hanging everything on.
LEVIN: Yeah, the welfare case became a very, you know, politically important thing to a lot of people. I think there was a very strong political will to bring her up on those charges and maybe there wasn't a big kind of grand reason to just prosecute a woman for murder.
BLOCK: Linda Taylor died in 2002. The name on her death certificate is not Linda Taylor. It's Constance Loyd. She had become a villain, right, a symbol of welfare fraud and abuse in an epidemic that was ravaging the system. The point that, I think, you're making in your story is that while, yes, there was welfare fraud and, yes, she did commit that, that she should not be seen as the emblem of what welfare fraud was. She was a criminal many, many times over.
LEVIN: Right. She is not an example of anything. She is a unique figure when it comes to public aid fraud. She is a unique figure, I think, when it comes to American criminality. She's not somebody that you want to use to exemplify a trend. She's not someone you want to use to exemplify a strain of human behavior. So to make any kind of claim about public aid fraud or to make any kind of claim about welfare recipients by using her as an example is a pretty big mistake.
BLOCK: Josh Levin is executive editor of Slate magazine. Josh, thanks very much.
LEVIN: Thank you.