Who Is John Doe?

By | November 15, 2019

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Sample social security card for John Doe. Source: (Houston Chronicle)

Anyone who has ever used terms like “thingamabob” or “whatchamacallit” because they couldn’t remember what something was called will understand the need for placeholder names. Similarly, “whatshisname” is often used when the person doesn’t remember or doesn’t know someone’s name. However, there are times when it is necessary to use placeholder names in a more official capacity, either because a person’s name is unknown, the person wishes to remain anonymous, or because the person doesn’t actually exist. Such is the case with John Doe and his colleagues.

The necessity to use fictitious names in an official capacity, specifically in lawsuits, dates back to the Romans. Names frequently used back then included Gaius, Titius, and Seius. However, the use of the name John Doe did not begin until much later. While some believe it began in the fourteenth century during the reign of Edward III, the earliest documentation of its use was found in a 1659 work which read “To prosecute the suit, to wit John Doe and Richard Roe.” However, it is most commonly known to have been a part of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the laws of England of 1765-69.

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Eviction notice. Source: (landlordzone.co.uk)

John Doe was born out of a British legal process of Ejectment which was used from the 15th to the 19th century. This process was used when a landowner was wrongfully evicted from his property. In order to regain his property, it was necessary for the landowner to establish his rights to the property. This was done in the form of a lawsuit in which a fictitious tenant, John Doe, claimed to have been ousted by the equally fictitious defendant, Richard Roe. In order to settle the case, the courts would have to acknowledge the rights of the landlord, the non-fictitious landowner. Because both the plaintiff and the defendant were fictitious, there was no one to dispute the claim and the landowner was pretty much guaranteed to have his rights established, leaving the person who had actually evicted him with no legal standing. This practice was eventually done away with by the Common Law Procedure Act of 1852, but by then the placeholder names had caught on.