Thanks to Tech Services Manager David Ownby for sharing his thoughts on this new book! You can find it in our collection here.
Blending literary true crime with investigative journalism, Josh Levin’s The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth separates truth and fiction in the controversial, chaotic life of Linda Taylor. Taylor captured national attention in the 1970s as the ‘welfare queen’ of Chicago. She was accused of bilking the Illinois and federal welfare system of hundreds of thousands of dollars through a vast scheme of fraud and false identities. Throughout her life Taylor used 80 names, 30 addresses, and 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and other welfare payments. Her story became part of two of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns. Though he rarely mentioned Taylor by name, she was understood to be the inspiration for Reagan’s tale of a Chicago grifter. While Taylor was of mixed race and assumed almost as many racial identities as names during her life, Reagan’s narrative assumed her to be black.
Taylor’s trial dragged on for years, and Reagan, the nation, and the Chicago Tribune (which first exposed the story) ultimately lost interest in her during the later 1970s and 80s. But the limelight hid a much darker life then either Reagan’s myth or the initial reporting described. Through careful investigation, Levin discovered evidence suggesting Taylor also used homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking to collect benefits and insurance and to steal property. These worse crimes were potentially overlooked because of the local and national obsession with public assistance and welfare that followed the end of America’s mid-century economic boom.
Levin’s findings illustrate which parts of Taylor’s story were true and which were likely invented by Linda Taylor and by those who prosecuted and persecuted her. But he also tries to find the true woman behind the story. Born into poverty in the Jim Crow South, Taylor’s racial background and parentage made her an outcast within her own family. She made efforts to reinvent herself on the West Coast but ultimately was drawn into a life of prostitution and crime. Her life of fraud eventually came to fame in Chicago, but she fled to Florida after her conviction and release from prison. Taylor was ultimately arrested again but a failing mental state saw her institutionalized rather than prosecuted until her death in 2002.
While Levin’s case is not entirely conclusive or without gaps in evidence, the book born from a 2013 Slate article does provide a lesson about the need for suspicion in the powerful myths and stories that drive American politics. While we often want simple answers and clear-cut decisions, the second half of the twentieth century showed the need for more granularity and complexity. Likewise, Taylor’s life was a complicated blend of crime and tragedy, but the over-simplified myths that her life inspired were used by politicians for decades afterwards.
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