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The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth
By Josh Levin
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“How old was she?” John Parks asked me. We were sitting outside on a spring day in 2013, a little less than thirty-eight years since his ex-wife, Patricia, had died under suspicious circumstances. “Boy, you waited a long time to come,” the seventy-seven-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 thirty-seven 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 squib in Jet magazine from 1974, 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.
A New Victim
Jack Sherwin tossed his day’s work on the front seat of his unmarked Chevy. He’d fished five or six burglary reports from his pigeonhole after roll call, enough to keep him and his partner occupied all morning and for a good chunk of the afternoon. Sherwin didn’t need any more assignments—he had at least a half-dozen more reports jammed inside his briefcase.
The Chicago burglary detective turned on the police scanner and peeled off his sport coat. August 12, 1974, was sunny, hot, and unbearably humid; the sky felt heavy but it wouldn’t rain all day. Sherwin headed east from his unit’s headquarters on Ninety-First Street and South Cottage Grove, past the Jewel Food Store where a group of armed men had recently made off with a $1,000 haul.1
He parked his car in South Chicago, a working-class, mostly black and Latino neighborhood bordered on the west by the Skyway, a toll road that carried suburban commuters above a part of town they’d rather not drive through. A month earlier, a sixty-six-year-old woman had been shot in the neck a short distance away in Calumet Heights, on the street outside St. Ailbe’s Catholic church.2 She’d died in her pastor’s arms. A couple of teenagers, both alleged members of the Blackstone Rangers gang, were charged with the killing. That was one of 970 murders in the city in 19743—more than four decades later, still the most homicides in a calendar year in the history of Chicago.
Sherwin wasn’t dealing with anything as messy as a murder case. This was a routine burglary, not a big enough deal to justify his partner, Jerry Kush, getting out of the car.
The two-story, six-unit brick building at 8221 South Clyde Avenue looked like a tiny castle, with a crenellated roof, an arch over the entryway, and limestone ornaments near the windows. Sherwin rang the bell and got buzzed inside. As he knocked on the door of a first-floor apartment, he looked down at his clipboard and rehearsed a sequence of well-worn questions: What’s missing? Did anyone see what happened? Is there anything you’d like to add to your original report?
When someone called about a smashed front window or a stolen jewelry box, uniformed officers went to the scene and wrote it up, getting a statement from the victim and enumerating the basic facts: the time, the location, what had been stolen. The burglary investigators followed up, often from a seated position. If you treated detective work like a desk job, occasionally exerting yourself by picking up the telephone, you could push a new report off your desk in less than an hour. Nobody ever solved a case by making a single phone call, but it hardly mattered given how rarely burglary detectives recovered people’s losses. There were nearly two hundred thousand burglaries, robberies, and thefts in Chicago in 19744, an increase of 18 percent over the previous year. Sherwin’s territory—what the department called Area 2, on Chicago’s Southeast Side—was the busiest in the city, with thirty-nine burglaries a day.
A big-picture thinker wouldn’t have lasted a week in Area 2. Those stats told a depressing story, one filled with the kind of hopeless characters who subsisted on the proceeds from petty crimes. But Sherwin knew it wasn’t on him to fix Chicago. He handled what he could see and what he could touch. He preferred to check out crime scenes himself, to imagine who’d been there and what they’d done. He broke down each new assignment into a series of predictable tasks, doing all the things a conscientious burglary detective was supposed to do: He talked to the right people, chased the right leads, and wrote everything up in clear, concise reports.
The door opened at 8221 South Clyde, and Sherwin took stock of the woman standing in front of him. Four days earlier5, Linda Taylor had called Area 2 headquarters to say that her home had been burglarized. Taylor appeared to be in her late thirties.6 She was just over five feet tall, with olive skin and dark, heavy-lidded eyes. Her face, a long oval tapering to a sharply jutting chin, seemed vaguely elfin. Her eyebrows, plucked into thin arcs, made her look like an old-fashioned glamour girl. She had a pronounced Cupid’s bow in her upper lip, and when she talked, that lip curled back to reveal the glint of gold dental work. Taylor looked as though she was expecting company: Her makeup was pristine, her outfit fashionable and snug.
As he stepped into the apartment, Sherwin noticed that Taylor kept a tidy house. Sometimes, if he went out on a case right away, he could see where a burglar had barged in. But there were no signs of forced entry here. The bolt on Taylor’s front door appeared undamaged. Nothing was broken or scattered around. Sherwin glanced again at the uniformed officers’ original report. Could they go through that list of missing items one more time?
A large green refrigerator7, complete with ice maker.
Yes, she told him. That was gone.
A gold stove.
It was a weird list. Hospital end tables. A grandfather clock. Two large Chinese lamps. Large elephant figurines. A pair of speakers that lit up to the beat of music. Thousands of dollars’ worth of household furnishings, every piece of it insured. Most burglars snatched whatever they could fit in their hands: a ring, a necklace, a stereo, a small TV set. Stealing a refrigerator and hospital end tables, bulky objects you couldn’t hustle out of an apartment without attracting attention, didn’t make much sense.
Sherwin went back to his clipboard and studied the report. He asked Taylor to explain, again, how the thieves had gotten away with her belongings. She pointed to a window in her kitchen8, an opening no more than a couple of feet across. Taylor’s version of events was preposterous: To fit a double-door refrigerator through that narrow gap, you’d have to cut it in half. The detective didn’t press her for more details. He thanked Taylor for her cooperation, and he promised to come around again just as soon as he developed any leads.
On his way out, Sherwin rang some more doorbells, but he couldn’t find any neighbors who’d seen a mysterious stranger wander off with a large appliance. As he walked back to the car, he thought about the clean apartment, the tiny window, and the woman with the olive skin and the heavy-lidded eyes. There was something so familiar about Linda Taylor. He was sure he’d had this exact case, with this exact woman. He just couldn’t remember where or when.
* * *
Sherwin knew Linda Taylor’s street. He’d grown up just a few miles away, in an all-white neighborhood close to what was then the southern tip of the city’s “Black Belt.” Back then, in the 1940s, segregation had been enforced with covenants that forbade the sale of properties to, for instance, “every person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood.”9 The Black Belt’s borders expanded in 1948 when the Supreme Court struck down those covenants, but segregation didn’t end with the stroke of a pen. New public housing developments kept black people confined to black enclaves, as did violence perpetrated by whites against those brave enough to breach long-standing barriers. When civil rights activist and “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson moved to the South Side in 1956, her white neighbors shot BB pellets10 through the windows of her house. Other black newcomers had their homes ransacked and set on fire.
The Sherwins, like many white families, packed up and moved when Chicago’s racial boundaries shifted, settling in the area around Midway Airport. Thirty years later, the detective scoped out South Side neighborhoods that bore little resemblance to the one he’d lived in as a child. Some of the areas in his jurisdiction had changed from middle-class white enclaves to middle-class black ones—the city’s most beloved athlete, Cubs legend Ernie Banks, lived with his family on a tree-lined street in Chatham. On his daily rounds, Sherwin passed by black-owned banks; the headquarters of the Johnson Products Company, manufacturer of the hair straightener Ultra Sheen; and the office of R. Eugene Pincham, a renowned black defense attorney and advocate for the disenfranchised.
Sherwin also rolled through hollowed-out streets dotted with liquor stores and check-cashing operations. South Chicago, the part of town where Linda Taylor lived, had long been the city’s smoke-belching industrial corridor, home to U.S. Steel’s mammoth South Works and countless other plants, factories, and forges. But between 1967 and 1977, the number of people working in manufacturing in Chicago proper would plummet by 33 percent.11 White flight took both jobs and services to the suburbs, cutting off thousands of black Chicagoans from steady employment and weakening the foundations of once-stable communities.12
Area 2 burglary detectives didn’t spend their days chasing after master criminals. They arrested juveniles and addicts, young men who were more desperate than cunning. Sherwin drove to Grand Crossing and South Shore and Pullman, stopping off at apartment buildings and restaurants to jot down notes about busted back doors and stolen cash.
He spent most days two feet to the left or right of Jerry Kush, with one man driving in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Kush was the best partner Sherwin had ever had, honest and reliable, but they weren’t close friends. While Kush wore flashy clothes, Sherwin looked and dressed like a standard-issue detective, with short hair and a daily uniform of a sport coat and tie. Kush never stopped talking—about his kids, his marital woes, and anything else that came to mind. Sherwin didn’t want to probe too far below the surface. Sometimes they’d hit the bars after work, but Sherwin didn’t like to drink. He hated the sensation of losing control.
Sherwin felt most comfortable when he was by himself. In high school, he didn’t go to parties or dances—he was too self-conscious to look at girls, much less talk to them. He’d found his confidence in the Marine Corps. When he came home after basic training, Sherwin wore his dress blues everywhere, and he sat the way a Marine was supposed to sit, his spine not touching the back of his chair.
In 1962, after a stint as a tank commander on Okinawa, he joined up with the Chicago Police Department. As a beat cop assigned to neighborhoods on the West and Southeast Sides, he could go from helping a woman deliver a baby to disarming a man threatening his girlfriend with a butcher knife. Sherwin loved the unpredictability of police work, and he took pride in protecting Chicago and its citizens.
There were times, though, when he thought those citizens’ actions were indefensible. Sherwin watched the West Side ignite following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, and he was on duty a few months later during the clashes between protesters and cops at the Democratic convention. A study commissioned by Mayor Richard J. Daley found that the MLK riots stemmed from “pent-up aggressions”13 among black Chicagoans infuriated by poor schools, inadequate housing, and racially discriminatory policing, while a federal report on the Democratic convention documented “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence”14 in response to demonstrators’ provocations. Sherwin didn’t come to the same conclusions. He’d feared for his life during the West Side riots, and he’d seen protesters attack policemen at the convention. He was certain that he and his fellow officers were the good guys. No matter what was happening in Chicago, nobody had the right to tear up the city.
After Sherwin made detective, his life got a lot more sedate. He and Kush still answered the occasional in-progress call, and they still tussled with burglars now and then. One time, they went to make an arrest and found their suspect hiding in a closet. The man charged out, completely naked, and Kush hit him on the head with a portable radio. Sherwin and Kush talked about that one for years. But naked guys didn’t jump out of closets on the average Monday afternoon.
Sherwin believed in the work he was doing but he wasn’t always stimulated by it. The job could be relentless and dispiriting. Most days, the detectives added a bunch of new reports to a caseload that was already overwhelming.
After work, the thirty-five-year-old police officer would go back to his two-bedroom apartment and do laundry. Some days, he’d head out to a religion class; he was studying to be a Catholic, so he could share a faith with his fiancée. He’d wake up early, before 3 a.m., to go for a run at Northwestern University before work. With the sky pitch-black and nobody else around, he had time to indulge the half-formed ideas bouncing around his head. The morning after his visit to the tidy apartment on South Clyde Avenue, Sherwin’s mind kept wandering back to Linda Taylor. He’d gone to her home on August 12 expecting to investigate a burglary. He’d left a half hour later thinking he needed to investigate the burglary victim.
* * *
Lamar Jones couldn’t remember the last time something interesting had happened to him at work. The dental clinic at Great Lakes Naval Training Center was an assembly line, a fifty-chair operation that treated a hundred thousand recruits and seven hundred thousand cavities each year.15 The twenty-one-year-old knew what each day would bring, and he knew what would happen the day after and the following week. But August 12 was different. That afternoon, a few hours after she’d met Jack Sherwin at 8221 South Clyde Avenue, Linda Taylor drove up to the naval base in North Chicago to get her teeth cleaned.
From the moment Jones saw her swagger into the room, he wanted to get close to her. She was self-assured and beautiful, an older woman with the smoothest skin he’d ever seen. The other sailors noticed her, too. They each took a shot, sauntering over all cool and casual, but she turned up her nose at each “Hey, baby.” She treated Jones differently. She joked with him and flirted. He left work that day feeling better than he’d felt in his entire life. Out of all the guys in the clinic, he was the one she’d chosen. Her name, she’d told him, was Linda Sholvia.
Jones had grown up on the South Side of Chicago. His mom had struggled to raise six kids on her own, and he’d fought his own battles in the neighborhood. As gangs like the Blackstone Rangers and the Cobra Stones rose to power in the 1960s, DuSable High School—the alma mater of Nat King Cole and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor—became a prime recruiting ground, and occasionally the setting for violent confrontations.16 But Jones had made it out, joining the navy and setting himself up for a better life. When he started dating Linda Sholvia, that life looked better than he could’ve possibly imagined.
Although Jones never saw her doing any work, his girlfriend seemed to have an endless supply of cash. She didn’t try to hide her wealth, draping herself in furs and driving a fleet of luxury vehicles. Jones considered himself street-smart—he’d had to be, growing up where he did—but this woman and her money made him drop his guard. On Saturday, August 1717, less than a week after they met at the Great Lakes clinic, the couple got married at Chicago City Hall.
The new Mrs. Jones spoiled her husband, giving him a couple of new cars and $1,000 right after they got hitched. She was generous, cosmopolitan, and well educated, a thirty-five-year-old Haitian woman with a degree from a Caribbean university. She was poised, too, sometimes even arrogant, commanding respect every time she walked into a car dealership or bank.
The honeymoon phase of their marriage didn’t last as long as their brief courtship. After Jones got transferred from the dental clinic to Great Lakes’ security unit, an assignment that required him to gear up like a police officer, he and a colleague decided to play a practical joke. They knocked on the door at 8221 South Clyde, hiding in the shadows so Linda wouldn’t know who was there. As soon as she opened the door, Jones’s friend shoved a badge in her face. She flew into a rage, slamming the door and screaming that she hated cops. If Jones knew what was good for him, she shouted, he’d never pull anything like that again.
Linda said a lot of crazy things. Just after their wedding, she told Jones he was her eighth husband, and that she’d killed the first one, shooting him in the chest. She said another of her husbands had worked for Greyhound and been crushed to death in a bus accident. Maybe she was telling the truth, or maybe she was just trying to scare him. Either way, he wasn’t sure what she was capable of.
Everywhere Jones looked, something was a little bit off. That degree from a Haitian university had been awarded to Linda Taylor, not Linda Sholvia. His wife had four different names on her mailbox at 8221 South Clyde, and she’d get letters addressed to all of them.18 She had a sister named Constance who seemed more like her adult daughter. Jones also suspected that Linda’s two small children weren’t really hers.
He wasn’t even sure she was from Haiti, or that she was thirty-five years old—on their marriage license, she’d given her age as twenty-seven.19 Jones thought she was black, but he wasn’t absolutely sure—her light complexion allowed her to pass as white one day and Asian the next. When she took off her clothes and slipped into bed, he noticed a long scar near her navel—what he thought was an incision from a hysterectomy. One night, he woke up before dawn and saw that his bride’s skin wasn’t so smooth—she had a thousand wrinkles on her face. After he caught a glimpse of her without makeup, she locked herself in the bathroom for an hour. When she came out, she looked like a whole new person.
* * *
On the morning of August 13, the day after he’d first stopped by Linda Taylor’s apartment, Sherwin grabbed six new burglary reports from his pigeonhole. But before he and Kush started on all the new stuff, Sherwin took a detour to 8221 South Clyde Avenue. For the second day in a row, he rang the bell outside, got buzzed into the front hallway, and knocked on the door of a first-floor apartment. When the door swung open, Sherwin saw an older woman staring back at him. It took him a moment to realize that this, too, was Linda Taylor, her face untouched by makeup and her body draped in a housecoat.
Once more, Taylor told him what had been taken from her. She said, again, that an enterprising burglar had stuffed her jumbo-size refrigerator through a narrow kitchen window. She spoke with a confidence that verged on arrogance, as if she couldn’t bear to waste her time explaining something so obvious.
Most burglary victims thanked Sherwin for showing an interest in their cases. But Linda Taylor didn’t seem grateful to see a police officer making these trips to South Chicago. She didn’t defer to Sherwin’s expertise, and she didn’t bow to his authority. She hadn’t asked for his help, and she didn’t need it.
Sherwin had been a Chicago police officer for twelve years, a detective for three. He’d been the lead investigator on hundreds of burglary cases. This didn’t look like a burglary, and it didn’t feel like one either. There was only one reason to think the place had been knocked over: Linda Taylor insisted that they were standing in the middle of a crime scene.
Taylor hadn’t told Sherwin anything new, but going back to her apartment hadn’t been a waste of time. Seeing her face again had jogged the detective’s memory. That afternoon, Sherwin placed a call to the Michigan State Police. He told the sergeant who answered the phone that he might know the whereabouts of Connie Jarvis.
In March 197220
- Longlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
- On Sale
- May 21, 2019
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little, Brown and Company