The Legend of the Chicago Welfare Queen

The true-crime story as an epic Gothic saga


In "stump speech after stump speech," Josh Levin writes in Slate, Ronald Reagan "regaled his supporters with the story of an Illinois woman whose feats of deception were too amazing to be believed."

For the record, the song predates the speeches.

"In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record," the former California governor declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year." As soon as he quoted that dollar amount, the crowd gasped.

Four decades later, Reagan's soliloquies on welfare fraud are often remembered as shameless demagoguery. Many accounts report that Reagan coined the term "welfare queen," and that this woman in Chicago was a fictional character. In 2007, the New York Times' Paul Krugman wrote that "the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen [was] a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud."

But the woman did exist, Levin writes, and while she certainly wasn't a typical welfare chisler?, let alone a typical welfare client, Reagan's descriptions of her scams were mostly accurate accounts of her activities. Yet there was much more to her criminal career than the case that made her infamous in the '70s: kidnappings, con games, maybe murder. Levin's story about her life reads like an epic Gothic saga in which half a dozen villains turn out to be the same shape-shifting monster; every time you think it couldn't possibly get weirder, it does.

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  1. This needs to be made into a movie. It really is a fascinating and bizarre story.

    Ugly in spirit, ugly in body

    1. how she suckered 7-8 men into marriage amazes me.

      1. four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands

        Same way they do over at jezebelle: imagination.

        1. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio

        2. So, your husband’s last name is Whiskers is it?

    2. Nice lookin’ Strat.

    3. I saw a movie about a far less interesting “Linda”: Lovelace.

      OTOH, Amanda Seyfried‘s boobs, so there’s that.


  2. What about the chief EPA Carbontologist who went to the can yesterday? For scamming hapless Uncle Sugar out of a million bucks getting paid for work not rendered, by claiming he was in the CIA somewhere in Pakistan? Welfare Queen by another name. And just as odd.

  3. Of course, people like Krugman whose only exposure to the poor is through their tender little imaginations filtered through the condescension of their bleeding hearts would assume that they are not clever enough to pull off scams like this. I never doubted the welfare queen story because I knew her rivals for the title first hand.

    1. I lived next to her rivals growing up. We were probably the only family on the block not on public assistance. Our thanks? The city took the house for not being able to keep up with the rising taxes. The Welfare Queens were never evicted.

      1. Government is good at only one thing. It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and say, ‘See if it weren’t for the government, you couldn’t walk.’

        – Harry Browne

    2. TIL that the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Economics is actually, literally, clinically retarded.

  4. TANSTAAFL proposal by GA lawmaker causes many people of a certain type to hurt their “feels”

    Actual arguments: “Seriously Brett? Children working for a lunch in a public school system; That’s the argument, not janitorial work or the value of the people who do it.”

    I literally could not understand what this person was against. I thought maybe it was the janitorial jobs, but no. I thought maybe she thought janitorial work was beneath children, but no. Apparently, because your parents were unfortunate or made bad decisions, your life should be no different from your peers who had different parents. Which is, to me, like saying that because I really wanted to make the basketball team, I should have been on it, despite being of merely average stature, coordination, and leaping ability.

    1. Well maybe you should have gotten a negroplasty then, slacker.

      1. My parents weren’t made of money, I was too lazy to work, and medicine was still the Somalia of pre-Obamacare. So, like Don Simmons I had to make the most of my condition.

    2. Those comments are hilarious. I’ve been having a hard time deciding which to post. Here’s one that completely doesn’t understand what money is or what it’s for:

      2 Fans
      I see a lot of comments that this is ok if ALL the kids had to work in exchange for lunch. Um…no. Who the hell works in exchange for food? We work in exchange for money. You don’t go to the supermarket and offer to scrub the floors in exchange for Doritos, and you don’t sweep up in the diner in exchange for your sandwich. Why the hell should KIDS work for food, which is a necessity? That’s like the workhouses of the past. Terrible concept, and cruel. It’s not a bad idea for kids to learn responsibility, and those who have kids in school know that most schools give kids classroom chores, which is enough. Sometimes, they pick up litter and most wipe their tables after lunch. They don’t need to be scrubbing the hallways and taking out the trash barrels. They are there to focus on learning. Also, given that most kids get 20 miutes for lunch, when would they do all this cleaning, exactly? Last, when your kids are home, before feeding them do you say “You can only eat food if you work for it, so go scrub the toilet or no lunch”.

      How dare anyone try to instill a work ethic in children.

      1. Even better:

        Maurice B. (MoeB)
        1,167 Fans
        Anyone in favor of this ridiculous idea is essentially pro slavery for poor childen…because, as we know, slaves in this country weren’t paid for their labor, but hey, their masters were *nice* enough to feed them scraps. Plus, all that manual labor taught those slaves the “value” of “hardwork”.
        34 MINUTES AGO

  5. Whether she was real or not was never important to Reagan. The goal was to capture electoral votes in the South by turning racist Democrats into Republicans. Willie Horton ads worked for the same way for Bush 41.

    And it worked.

    1. Except she was real. Period. Your spiel only works if she wasn’t. No go climb back under your rock.

      1. Ah come on. You’re actually applying principles consistently. Liberals don’t bother with honest things like that.

        You see, the welfare queen story doesn’t matter because racism, and the fake story about Bush in the National Guard is true even though it’s fake because racism.

        See? It all makes sense as long as you don’t think about it.

      2. So what? Willie Horton was real too.

        The point of the Southern Strategy was to combine the racists/evangelicals into a winning electoral bloc.

        Welfare (now TANF) is a small program relatively speaking.

        1. The size of the program doesn’t matter if it is wasteful. I found out today that New York has an “Office of Community Gardens”. It’s a small program, relatively speaking, but I still want it cut because it is wasteful.

          1. You’re obviously racist.

            1. Oh come on, you’re not trying. Show your work.

              Try something like:

              “The office of community gardens is clearly a program meant for urban areas.”

              “Urban areas in New York have a higher proportion of the state’s minority population.”

              “Getting rid of the program would clearly remove enrichment from the lives of these municipal minorities.”

              “Ergo, you are obviously racist.”

              Even when being sarcastic, put a little effort into it instead of being a broken record.

              Of course, just for the record, my real logic is along the lines of:

              “If gardens were really a priority for the residents of these communities, they would organize their creation and maintenence themselves. There is no need for the state to do so.”

              1. You’re actually taking the logic beyond a single step. That’s too difficult for retards like PB. All they understand is that Republicans are racist. So if you identify yourself as wanting to cut anything in government, you’re obviously a Republican and that makes you a racist.

        2. “”””So what? Willie Horton was real too.””‘

          So you are saying that the truth is racist or that racism is true?

          “”””Welfare (now TANF) is a small program relatively speaking.”””

          Except if you get welfare you can get in line for all sorts of other programs. Such as Food Stamps, Sec 8 Housing vouchers, Medicaid, free education, free cell phones and also get in line for private charity such as food banks

    2. Willie Horton ads worked for the same way for Bush 41.

      Is that why the Gore campaign used it first in the primary against Dukakis?

      1. I sometimes wonder if the Republicans would ever come up with some of this shit if the Democrats hadn’t used it first.

        See also: Obama’s birth certificate first brought up by a Clinton campaign worker..

        1. It wasn’t racist when Clinton brought it up it because only Republicans are racist.

      2. It wasn’t racist when Gore used it because only Republicans are racist.

      3. Why are you guys engaging with it?

        Its mind is too destroyed to even comprehend that it is wrong. It merely derives pleasure from the fact that people are interacting with it.

        1. I need the laugh.

          1. No you don’t. There is nothing it hates more than being ignored. Get your laugh from ignoring it, it’s a far more satisfying laugh.

            1. But I don’t get a laugh from that. Only the frothing insanity is amusing.

              1. Then you’re part of the problem. tarran, permission to treat UnCivilServant as a hostile commenter?

                1. tarran, permission to treat UnCivilServant as a hostile commenter?

                  Tough question. I am conflicted.

                  I think we’ll resolve this in a Cosean manner – i.e. by me going with whichever one of you gives me the best bribe.

        2. Oh, he’s real.

          This explains everything; he’s hated Rush ever since Limbaugh gave him shit about what he asked Clinton.

  6. Heard a story on RT about a welfare queen cop. Apparently, he stapled his trigger finger and now gets $46,000 (or so) in permanent disability, and admits his ‘injury’ doesn’t stop him from doing anything.

    If you get mad at this sort of thing, that’s when progressives get huffy and start accusing you of blaming the victim.

    1. progressives get huffy and start accusing you of blaming the victim.

      Victim. They keep using that word. I don’t think it means what they think it means.

  7. The goal was to capture electoral votes in the South by turning racist Democrats into Republicans.

    Pointing out “waste, fraud and abuse” in government programs is only racist when Republikkkanz do it.

  8. From Krugman’s 2007 column:

    “Thus, Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen ? a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud.”

    Shouldn’t the NY Times correct this?

    1. If they corrected that fib from Krugman, they’d have to correct them all. Think of Krugman like Bernie Madoff. His scam is so far reaching, and so many people are invested in it, that to actually stop the fraud would be worse than letting it go.


  9. Seriously Brett? Children working for a lunch in a public school system

    Exchanging labor for value; good grief, what a horrible lesson for a public school to teach!

    1. I know. Next they’ll be teaching poor kids they need to work to have a phone or housing.

  10. A liberal chin-scratches about “progressives” vis-a-vis the ACA and wonders where it all went wrong:

    Serious liberals are those for whom the primary purpose of politics is to protect personal liberty and advance social equality. Their liberalism has been the motive force of America’s political history?which is the saga of extending legal and political rights, social status, and realized liberty to ever-wider groups, and legislating “welfare state” protections against the social and economic vicissitudes of life. They have been eclipsed in recent decades by those who call themselves “progressives”?who borrow the language of liberalism but are in practice devoted to enlarging and valorizing government itself rather than the liberty and equality of citizens. Critically, progressives predominate among Democratic party and interest-group activists whose careers consist of acquiring and deploying state power.…

    1. Obamacare is not an outright government monopoly, but it achieves the same dreary results through standardization and regimentation. It establishes a profusion of regulatory controls over prices, entry, and services in insurance and medical care, policies whose systematic anticonsumer perversities have been documented by generations of economists of all political persuasions. (Not long ago, the elimination of entry and price controls in competitive markets was a bipartisan project, championed by Edward Kennedy as well as Ronald Reagan.) That some states operating their own Obamacare insurance “marketplaces” are already moving to ban the private sale of individual and small-business insurance is one example of the program’s tendency toward explicit monopoly.

      1. Hey, at least this person gets it to a certain degree. I’d far more rather deal with them than your standard braindead partisan TEAM screaming “progressive” collectivist statist scumbag.

    2. the primary purpose of politics is to protect personal liberty and advance social equality

      Talk about doublethink.

      You can’t advance social equality without destroying personal liberty.

      Now my head hurts.

      1. Yeah, I noticed that. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he’s referring to the basic idea of a social safety net that doesn’t require gut-stomping your population to make it happen.

      2. that sentence seems the definition of zero sum, doesn’t it. Advancing one requires diminishing the other.

        1. I would argue not. Advancing personal liberty does not necessarily cause social equality to retreat.

          1. It does when social equality is achieved through force, such as accommodation laws and wealth redistribution.

            1. I think you misread my statement.

              1. Personal liberty means not having to ask permission or obey orders. It doesn’t require any action by the government. Quite the opposite, actually. So for personal liberty to advance, some sort of government imposed restriction, usually created in the name of social equality, needs to be lifted.

                1. Quite the opposite, actually. So for personal liberty to advance, some sort of government imposed restriction, usually created in the name of social equality, needs to be lifted.

                  I generally agree with that, but even if that’s the case, lifting that restriction doesn’t mean someone else in society is poorer or less equal.

                  1. social equality =/= social justice.

                    I took the term to mean things like the right to vote and to live, work and dine where you want. Ending Jim Crow would be an example of advancing social equality.

                    1. I took the term to mean things like the right to vote and to live, work and dine where you want.

                      Voting. Fine.

                      What if you can’t afford to live where you want to live? Doesn’t equality mean the government should subsidize you?

                      What if you are unskilled and can’t get the job you want. Doesn’t equality mean the government should force them to hire you anyway?

                      What if you can’t afford to dine where you want? Doesn’t equality mean the government should subsidize your meal or just force them to give it to you?

                      In political terms, equality almost always means force.

                      There is unrest in the forest,
                      There is trouble with the trees,
                      For the maples want more sunlight
                      And the oaks ignore their pleas.

                    2. One of the most epic incidents of trolling in real life that I pulled off:

                      Convincing my girlfriend at the time to use the song The Trees as the basis for an oral presentation for a Women’s Study course at an all female college.

                    3. Ending Jim Crow would be an example of advancing social equality.

                      And now that Jim Crow is over, any other effort in “advancing” social equality can only retreat from social equality.

                      There’s a damn good reason they use the term “social equality” rather than “political equality” – they WANT a caste system as long as it is of their own design.

                  2. If the restriction was on how much of your paycheck you may keep, then the person who was receiving what was being taken from you would certainly feel poorer and less equal.

          2. Paul – I see where you’re coming from (there is no ‘necessary’ negative correlation)…

            but the way the person frames the point is pretty clear =

            PROTECT (freeze in place) personal liberties as we understand them…

            ADVANCE (increase) social equality from its status quo.

            It seems the priority & emphasis is being placed not on any ‘advance’ of liberty, but rather some gesture of modest respect to it while “Advancing” this notion of ‘equality’ which is needless to say, pretty vague in its conception and limitless in its potential for meddling in the lives of individuals.

            Having read the guy’s full piece, what I am seeing is that he’s presenting a more generous characterization of “the older-fashioned, good liberals” in contrast to the more modern progressives, and trying to clarify that the Old Timey Liberals should be stepping up to ‘fix shit’ – to wit:

            “…But now that the program’s true nature and future course have come into sharp relief, it is time for serious liberals to find their voice. For Obamacare’s two central features are as inimical to liberal values as to conservative values. The first is monopoly and the suppression of diversity and competition. The second is extreme concentration of power, exercised continuously in monitoring and directing the activities of millions of citizens.”

            1. It’s also possible that the author’s vision of personal liberty is actually one of personal privilege. People who don’t have access to public transportation aren’t free. People who can’t get low-cost or free abortions aren’t ‘free’.

              I was just saying that I don’t see it as a pure zero sum argument– especially in the direction of advancing liberty. I get sarcasmic’s point and generally agree. I do believe that advancing social equity usually does mean encroaching on personal liberty. But I don’t believe that a free people are less socially equal. We only need to look to socialism to prove that untrue.

    3. The person (at least in this paragraph) makes no clear distinction between “enlarging and valorizing government” (“progressive”) and “legislating “welfare state” protections against the social and economic vicissitudes of life” (“Good” Liberals).

      I’m not so sure how Serious Liberals get to disown paternity for Progressives at this late date. I know they support Abortion… but not, you know, after nearly 100 years.

  11. Almost as lovely a character as Geraldine Parrish, the ‘Black Widow’ from David Simon’s excellent Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

    The case of Geraldine Parrish, a woman who took out insurance policies on her five husbands (two of whom she kept in the same house) and relatives, and then arranged for them to be murdered. One would-be victim was her three-year-old niece. The Black Widow was convicted of three murders and received concurrent life sentences.…..lack_Widow

    1. The TV show version of this is pretty good too.

  12. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” As soon as he quoted that dollar amount, the crowd gasped.

    That’s ’cause $150K was real money back then.

    1. ^^THIS^^

      Adjusted for inflation, it would now be $614,417.40

  13. While I enjoyed the Slate piece… this guy Levin seems to get in over his head entirely in trying to untangle the story. so much so that he ends up creating additional confusion by loading up on information that makes things less clear WTF the point is. I assume ‘investigative journalism’ maybe isn’t his thing, or that editors gave him a pass, but I mean, come the fuck on =

    “Markham’s medical examiner’s file lists her name as Mildred Constance Raner Loyd. Her death certificate (which misspells her first name) indicates that she’s a citizen of Trinidad, and her parents’ names are Frank Raner and Edith Wakefield. According to her granddaughter, Mildred Markham’s maiden name was actually Hampton, and she was born in the United States. Markham’s mother was not Edith Wakefield?back in the 1960s, Linda had tried to convince a judge that Edith Jarvis Wakefield was her own mother. When Markham was still alive, Taylor made her believe that they were mother and daughter. In death, she slotted Markham into her long-running, fictional life story.”

    That clear to everyone? Good, now…

    No, really. I understand its a complicated story. but maybe the writer should, from time to time, *elide* some of the detail to enable clarity? I mean, at that point in the story, it was already clear ‘Taylor’ had parasitically glommed onto a new host… the above added nothing new except a headache.

  14. Another thing that raises the Suck Meter a bit (a lot?) in Levin’s piece = the idea that this complex story of a psychopath provides a easy Segway into the idea that… CUTS TO WELFARE ARE MEAN!! and this hyperventilating about Welfare led to ‘failures to pursue *real crimes*’ =

    “…If Linda Taylor had been seen as a suspect rather than a scapegoat, lives may have been saved. Prosecutors have great discretion in choosing what cases to bring?that’s how the rate of welfare indictments could shoot up so dramatically in a single decade. When politicians and journalists whip the public into a frenzy about welfare fraud, the limitations of municipal budgets and judicial resources dictate that less attention be paid to everything else. Linda Taylor’s story shows that there are real costs associated with this kind of panic, a moral climate in which stealing welfare money takes precedence over kidnapping and homicide”

    Don’t get me started about his weeping about “Cuts to Food Stamp programs by evil republicans!”… motherfucker, cuts?? WHAT CUTS?


    1. The piece definitely has a feel of something being tacked on. My impression is that they guy started off with a thesis that Reagan had exaggerated the story to the detriment of the national conversationon welfare, only to find the real story so.fucked.up that he couldn’t in.good.conscience.ignore it. But his.insistence on coming.back to his original narrative made a wonderully interesting story clash jarringly with his.obvious prejudiced opinion. If only he had set aside his initial feeling that the welfare system was being.unjustly maligned, this.story couod have.been award. Instead of being led down the rabbit hole and back out, the reader finds himself being dragged through a warren of unrelated political themes. It is clear that the big publicity may have misdirected the.investigation, is far from obvious that the focus on welfare abuse was a bad thing.

      His argument that welfare cost reduction was achieved.not.through prosecuting fraud but through reducing benefits makes little sense that reduced.benefits imply reduced.incentive for abuse, i.e., fraudsters.will go after whatever pays off best and may leave for other pastures if their potential take is greatly reduced. Legitimate welfare recipients may get no less in the long run because they weren’t tye ones abusing the place.

      1. “If only he had set aside his initial feeling that the welfare system was being.unjustly maligned, this.story couod have.been award”

        My thought exactly. It was an award-level story (sans some of my issues noted above regarding shitty editing for clarity) that has loads of interesting stuff *just by itself* without necessitating any particular larger connection to the bleeding-heart, ‘but Welfare is still GOOD!’ narrative.

        Totally agreed that his insistence on trying to find some way to make the story “fit” into his pro-welfare worldview was completely artificial and jarring, seemingly tacked on after the fact.

        side note = Something wrong with the period button there, bro?

  15. What a surreal story. To imagine that people live lives like this is to wonder at the simultaneous flexibility and fragility of the human psyche.

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