“How old was she?” John Parks asked me. We were sitting outside on a spring day in 2013, a little less than 38 years since his ex-wife, Patricia, had died under suspicious circumstances. “Boy, you waited a long time to come,” the 77-year-old Parks said, struggling to remember details, such as Patricia’s age, that had once seemed unforgettable. “At first, it was just on the tip of my tongue. And nobody came.”
Patricia Parks had been 37 when she was pronounced dead of a barbiturate overdose on the night of June 15, 1975. Patricia, who’d suffered from multiple sclerosis, had been treated at home by a friend who’d promised to make her feel better. Linda Taylor submerged Patricia in ice-cold water and fed her medications stored in unlabeled bottles. Taylor also took possession of the sick woman’s house on the South Side of Chicago and became the executor of her estate. John Parks believed then and remained certain decades later that Taylor murdered Patricia. But nobody had seen fit to charge Taylor with his ex-wife’s killing, and nobody in any position of authority, John told me, had bothered to ask him what he thought of Patricia’s friend. “All they said was, ‘That’s another black woman dead.’”
When I started digging into Linda Taylor’s life, I hadn’t imagined that I’d end up investigating a potential homicide. Taylor rose to prominence in the mid-1970s as a very different kind of villain: America’s original “welfare queen.” One of the first stories I ever read about her, a 1974 squib in Jet magazine, said that she’d stolen $154,000 in public aid money in a single year, “owned three apartment buildings, two luxury cars, and a station wagon,” and had been “busy preparing to open a medical office, posing as a doctor.” Another Jet article depicted her as a shape-shifting, fur-wearing con artist who could “change from Black to white to Latin with a mere change of a wig.” But when Ronald Reagan expounded on Taylor during his 1976 presidential campaign, shocking audiences with the tale of “a woman in Chicago” who used eighty aliases to steal government checks, he didn’t treat her as an outlier. Instead, Reagan implied that Taylor was a stand-in for a whole class of people who were getting something they didn’t deserve.
The words used to malign Linda Taylor hardened into a stereotype, one that was deployed to chip away at benefits for the poor. The legend of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen ultimately overwhelmed Taylor’s own identity. After getting convicted of welfare fraud in 1977, Taylor disappeared from public view and public memory. No one seemed to know whether she’d really lived under eighty aliases, and nobody had any idea whether she was alive or dead.
I spent six years piecing together Taylor’s story, and trying to comprehend why it got lost in the first place. The more I learned about her, the more the mythologized version of Linda Taylor fell apart, and not in the ways I expected. As a child and an adult, Taylor was victimized by racism and deprived of opportunity. She also victimized those even more vulnerable than she was.
Patricia Parks’s death was a blip for the Chicago Tribune; Linda Taylor’s public aid swindle was a years-long obsession. For journalists and politicians, the welfare queen was a potent figure, a character whose outlandish behavior reliably provoked outrage. Poor black women saw their character assailed by association with Taylor. At the same time, a woman whom Taylor had preyed on elicited no sympathy. Patricia Parks’s ex-husband, John, who died in 2016, believed that his family’s race was the reason that Patricia’s death wasn’t seen as a scandal or a tragedy. “I’d have to be somebody,” he told me, explaining why some Americans get justice and others don’t.
Linda Taylor did horrifying things. Horrifying things were also done in Linda Taylor’s name. No one’s life lends itself to simple lessons and easy answers, and Taylor’s was more complicated than most. I’ve tried my best to tell the whole truth about what Linda Taylor did, what she came to signify, and who got hurt along the way. That goal may be unattainable, but we do far more damage to the world and to ourselves when we don’t care to pursue it.