MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Linda Taylor or Linda Bennett (ph) or Linda Gordon (ph) or whoever she really was might have remained a busier than average con artist, maybe the subject of an expose or two in one of the Chicago papers. Instead, she became Exhibit A of a kind of cultural corrosion and governmental ineptitude that Ronald Reagan promised to fix. Here he is in a radio commentary from October, 1976.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RONALD REAGAN: The trail extends through 14 states. She has used 127 names so far, posed as a mother of 14 children at one time, seven at another, signed up twice with the same caseworker in four days and once, while on welfare, posed as an open heart surgeon complete with office.
MARTIN: In speeches, Reagan usually called her the woman from Chicago. The Chicago newspapers gave her a name that stuck - the welfare queen. But as it turns out, neither Reagan nor most of the reporters - not even most of the cops on her trail ever really got her story straight. It was actually far more complicated and perhaps even more terrible than any of them ever figured out. Josh Levin thinks he has, though, and he tells the fascinating and bizarre tale in a new book called "The Queen." And he is with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOSH LEVIN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Let me just say up front, this story is so strange. It has so many twists and turns. It's a wonder anybody could follow it all. And, first of all, what is her real name?
LEVIN: She was born Martha Louise White.
MARTIN: Martha Louise White - but you call her Linda Taylor in the book, right?
LEVIN: Yes. When she became a public figure kind of briefly in the mid-1970s, that was what she was known as.
MARTIN: So she really did commit welfare fraud. Can we just establish that - the fact that she did use aliases, she did use any number of means in order to get benefits to which she was not entitled? That's accurate.
LEVIN: That is accurate. The thing that's inaccurate is to characterize her fraud as typical. When Reagan talked about her in his speeches when he ran for president for the first time in 1976, he was highlighting her because she was an extraordinary case because she had stolen a lot of money. But at the same time, he wanted to use her as an example of what was wrong with the system. And that was really what was inaccurate - the implication that people that are on welfare - that we should be suspicious of them.
MARTIN: To the best of your knowledge, how much did she steal?
LEVIN: Reagan would say $150,000 in a single year. Sometimes, it was reported that she'd stolen 300,000 or even a million. What I was able to find when I went to the Illinois State Archives is some correspondence back and forth between public officials where it seems like what they settled on was on the order of $40,000 over a period of several years - which is a lot of money, but it's not the scope that Reagan described.
MARTIN: But she had other crimes. I mean, like, she would say she was going to buy a house and never pay for it. And she was a grifter, right?
LEVIN: She was a grifter. And her grifts included, you know, posing as a heart surgeon. We heard that from Reagan at the - in the clip at the top. That was true. She did do that. She would also pose as a voodoo priestess, and she would scam people on a very close-up personal level. She would tell people that she, like, could communicate with their dead relatives or could see into the future and would - she would prey on people an incredible number of ways and seemed to have an instinct for how to really get inside and devastate individuals.
MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the book is that, you know, the welfare fraud was the least of it. Actually, what she may have done was worse. I mean, you think she actually may have kidnapped kids and wanted to use them to get benefits.
LEVIN: Not sure why she did the kidnappings. Her behavior often seemed irrational and inexplicable. But yeah, she was arrested on kidnapping charges in Chicago in 1967. She was not charged. And then in 1975, when she has been indicted for welfare fraud - and at that point, she is a known figure, she's known as the welfare queen - the Chicago Tribune reports that she's been accused of a homicide. And yet, even with an accusation that severe and that kind of horrifying, it just doesn't affix itself to her story.
MARTIN: How did she get involved in this life to begin with?
LEVIN: When I started to really dig into where she had come from and who she was before she became Linda Taylor and the welfare queen, I found a very 20th-century American story of this woman who had grown up in the Deep South. She was mixed race in a family that didn't accept her. She was denied an education. She was denied the love of the people who were supposed to care for and protect her. And as so many Americans did, she left the Deep South and moved out West.
But out there, she had trouble finding steady work. I found some arrests for prostitution-related offenses in the 1940s. And then out there, she married a white man. And she listed her race at that time as Hawaiian because if she had been marked as black on an official form, California had not yet struck down its miscegenation ban, so she wouldn't - it wouldn't have been legal for her to enter into this marriage.
And so I think these events all helped chart the course of her life and mark her life to some degree. And yet, they don't explain or excuse her criminal behavior. And, you know, as far as why she did the things that she did, she was not someone who was honest about her motivations and about what she'd done. And so as far as looking for answers, a lot of this stuff is unknowable.
MARTIN: Well, she did a lot of things. I mean, one of the ways that this scam unraveled is that she reported a burglary that could not possibly have happened. I mean, she's reported that, like, a big refrigerator was stolen from her apartment or something like that, right? And...
LEVIN: Yeah. Her story was that the refrigerator had been taken out of her window, which geometrically, it was not a plausible scenario.
MARTIN: So how did it all finally come to an end?
LEVIN: So in 1977, she goes on trial for welfare fraud, and she's convicted and given a pretty harsh sentence. She was only actually charged with stealing a little under $9,000. So for $9,000, she gets three to seven years in prison. She goes away to a state prison in Illinois. And after that, she's never written about again. She's almost, like, erased from history and the public record. And what I was able to find is that when she got out of prison, she predictably changed identities, moved to Florida and committed a bunch more crimes.
MARTIN: And then she died in 2002. You paint a portrait of a - I don't know how else to describe it - a deeply damaged person. But you also make the case in the book that her story is about more than her. What do you want people to draw from it?
LEVIN: I think what this book is about to a large degree is just the damage that can be done by telling a distorted story. In Illinois, after her successful prosecution, there was a special unit created exclusively to prosecute welfare fraud. A lot of people got caught up in that who were not Linda Taylor-like. These are people who were struggling. But after her case and all the publicity it got, welfare fraud is increasingly treated as a matter that needs to be dealt with harshly, severely in courts and then with prison time.
And then, on national policy level, Reagan does not win in 1976. But he continues to talk about Taylor when he runs successfully in 1980. And then, once he's in office, he tells her story not only publicly. He tells his newspaper editors. He also tells it to the Congressional Black Caucus. He tells it to people in Congress behind the scenes as he's selling his cuts to food stamps and aid to families with dependent children.
And what he's arguing is if we cut out the Linda Taylors, if we cut out the fraudsters, then there can be more for everyone else, and it's a win-win situation. And he passes - succeeds in passing these very large cuts. The effect of them is a lot more devastating on vulnerable people than I think he was selling when he was selling these cuts.
MARTIN: Josh Levin is the editorial director of Slate, and his new book is called "The Queen." Josh Levin, thanks so much for talking to us.
LEVIN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.