During President Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign trail, the actor-cum-politician made the "welfare queen" an integral part of his issue reform rhetoric and an evergreen trope that African Americans still battle. But recently, Slate's thorough reporting reveals that the "welfare queen" Reagan employed to stereotype a nation of black folks was actually one real woman named Martha Louise White (the reporter believes) who may or may not have been white, and a murderer.
White, who used a lot of aliases, is known mostly as Linda Taylor in the story. She defrauded pretty much every government agency — social security, food stamps, Medicaid, and Aid to Families With Dependent Children — married a multitude of different men as under various names, liked to commit insurance fraud, knew her way around child kidnapping and trafficking and might've pulled off one of Chicago's biggest unsolved crimes, the kidnapping of baby Paul Joseph Fronczak.
Isaiah Gant, who has been an attorney for nearly four decades, says his onetime client "was a scam artist like I have never run across since." Gant, now an assistant federal public defender in Nashville, Tenn., says Taylor could change personalities in an instant. "If she wanted to be a ho, she could be a ho. If she wanted to be a princess, she could be a princess," he says. "The woman was smooth."
A Chicago cop named Jack Sherwin originally began piecing together the scope of her crimes when he was called to the scene of a robbery. Oddly, the female victim — who claimed to have been robbed of her furs, cash and valuables — seemed familiar. Sherwin discovered that he had met Taylor before, when she tried this insurance scam two years earlier across town using a different name, different house and different hair. That coincidence prompted him to dig into Taylor and she was eventually brought up on charges of welfare fraud.
In late September 1974, seven weeks after Sherwin met Taylor for the second time, the detective's findings made the Chicago Tribune. "Linda Taylor received Illinois welfare checks and food stamps, even tho[ugh] she was driving three 1974 autos—a Cadillac, a Lincoln, and a Chevrolet station wagon—claimed to own four South Side buildings, and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii," wrote Pulitzer Prize winner George Bliss. The story detailed a 14-page report that Sherwin had put together illuminating "a lifestyle of false identities that seemed calculated to confuse our computerized, credit-oriented society." There was evidence that the 47-year-old Taylor had used three social security cards, 27 names, 31 addresses, and 25 phone numbers to fuel her mischief, not to mention 30 different wigs.
Taylor attended her court dates in a Cadillac, sporting full-length fur coats and sparkly jewels. She remained stone-faced in the court room and refused to speak to reporters after the trial. In 1978, she was began her sentence in Illinois' Dwight Correctional Center for some of her crimes.
But as the story continues, the details just get more twisted, here are some snippets:
When she tried pretending to be Constance Wakefield, the daughter of Chicago gambling kingpin Lawrence Wakefield to inherit his fortune after his death, her real uncle Hubert Mooney from Arkansas came to an Illinois court to testify that she was his niece, Martha Louise White.
For Hubert Mooney, who died in 2009, this was a jarring experience. His daughter Joan Shefferd says Mooney was from a different era, and that he was a very prejudiced man. Taylor's behavior, she says, made her father angrier than she'd ever seen him. His niece's lying and scheming were one thing, but there was something else he'd never understand. Why was Martha Louise White passing herself off as a black woman?
She seemed to have had four biological children who appeared both white and black, which riled up racial tension as she and her kids moved from place to place in the South. Eventually she dropped off the darkest child with a family and never returned for him, according to her son Johnnie Taylor.
Cliff left home in his early teenage years, Johnnie says, and then it was just him, Paul, and Sandra.
It was them against the world—and often them against their mother. Johnnie says Taylor was not a loving person. She used to beat him, he says, because "I was the odd one"—a white child who saw himself as a black sheep.
When Chicago prosecutors unmasked Constance Wakefield in 1964, they revealed that she'd been charged in Oakland with (among other things) contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Later, in Arizona and Illinois, she'd have children taken from her after police found signs of neglect. Throughout her life, wherever she went, she was always picking up children and losing them, other people's and her own. When Johnnie was young, he says, his mother would often hand her kids over to friends, family, and tenuous acquaintances, with no indication of when or if she'd return. In the mid-1950s, she left Paul with a black family in Missouri. After a brief reunion, she left him again, this time with a family in Chicago. His siblings wouldn't see Paul again for many years.
Still, she would randomly acquire children from nowhere, who would disappear just as quickly.
Her son Johnnie believes his mother saw children as commodities, something to be acquired and sold. He remembers a little black girl—he doesn't know her name—who stayed with them for a few months in the early 1960s, "and then she just disappeared one day." Shortly before Lawrence Wakefield died, Johnnie says, a white baby named Tiger showed up out of nowhere, and then left the household just as mysteriously. I ask him if he knew where these kids came from or who they belonged to. "You knew they wasn't hers," he says.
And that might've included the still missing Fronczak baby.
Later that month, the Tribune revealed that Taylor had reportedly told police in 1967 "that she had given birth to a boy in Edgewater Hospital on Dec. 13, 1963—four months before the birth and kidnaping of the Fronczak baby. That child, she said, was living with foster parents in Chicago Heights." Police discovered that the birth certificate for this supposed baby was signed by Dr. Grant Sill—the same doctor who ... had agreed to stop practicing medicine in 1970 to avoid prosecution on charges of "selling dangerous drug prescriptions to youngsters."
Johnnie's not even sure White/Taylor was his real mother.
"I might have even been somebody else's kid," he says. "She might have grabbed me when I was a baby." He thinks it's likely he was stolen, that he belongs to someone else. "I've always felt like that, even as a kid, even as far back as I can remember."
And she most likely killed a woman named Patricia Parks, while convincing the dying woman to sign over her own children and worldly possession to Taylor.
Taylor told the funeral director that Patricia Parks had cervical cancer. When her blood was drawn at the funeral home, however, the sample contained a high level of barbiturates. On Parks' death certificate, the coroner indicated that she had died of "combined phenobarbital, methapyrilene, and salicylate intoxication." There is no indication that she had cancer.
"She killed my mother," Parks-Lee says. She's so sure about what Linda Taylor did that she says it three more times: "She killed my mother. She killed my mother. I just, I mean—she killed my mother."
Most importantly, White/Taylor was one woman, and she should not have been used to stereotype and launch an attack on the majority of black American women as enemies of the state that continues to this day.
The plural of anecdote is not data. The plural of the craziest anecdote you've ever heard is definitely not data. And yet, the story of the welfare queen instantly infected the policy debate over welfare reform.
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