Who Is John Doe?

CULTURE | December 5, 2019

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.

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.

Roe deer buck in Estonia. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

While there is no evidence that the name John Doe was based on a real person, the choice of the first name John makes sense. It was second only to William as the most popular name in England at the time. Even today, John is often thought of as a generic name, with names like John Q and John Smith used in reference to the average person. The last name Doe, however, seems to have been chosen at random. It is unknown whether there is any significance in the fact that Doe and Roe are both connected to deer with roe being a Eurasian deer species. In any case, John Doe has also been known to go by John Goodtitle or John Nokes. Richard Roe is usually the second party in a lawsuit, and if necessary, John Stiles and Richard Miles, have been used to represent the third and fourth parties.  

The Supreme Court Building of the United States. Source: (Wikipedia)

These days, the names John Doe and Richard Roe, as well as the female counterpart, Jane Doe (sometimes Jane Roe or Mary Moe), are used to represent not only fictitious or hypothetical parties but also parties who wish to remain anonymous or are otherwise unidentified. In some cases, the second party is referred to as Peter Roe. The names Doe and Roe have been used in thousands of cases in America, the most famous of which was Roe v. Wade, in which Norma Leah McCorvey used the pseudonym Jane Roe as she wished to remain anonymous but revealed her identity afterward. In England and Wales, the name John Doe is often used in privacy cases in which celebrities fight to protect their reputation from unidentified parties who hold potentially damaging information.

John Doe toe tag. Source: (Mental Floss)

However, the Does aren’t limited to legal proceedings. John and Jane Doe are also the names given to patients who are admitted to hospitals with no ID as well as bodies that are pending identification. While there are multiple names that can be used to describe a non-specific person in everyday conversation, such as Joe Schmoe or Tom, Dick, and Harry, the Does and the Roes, have become the go-to placeholders in official proceedings.

Tags: John Doe, social security

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