MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Is An Unidentified Person Called “John Doe”?

The news is regularly filled with reports of murders & missing persons cases involving unknown person. And that unknown person is usually referred to as “John Doe”. But why? Why do we call unidentified people John Doe until their real identity is established?

This all comes from a weird, no-longer-in-use British legal procedure called an “action of ejectment”. In old English common law, the things landowners could do in court to evict squatters or tenants in default were usually uber-technical & too difficult to be efficiently useful. So instead, landlords would bring an “action of ejectment” on behalf of one made-up tenant against another made-up person who’d allegedly evicted him. To determine what property rights of the made-up persons, the courts then had to establish that the landlord actually owned the property in question. That would have then settled the landlord’s actual issue, without needing more extensive legal maneuvering.

No one knows what case first used the made-up names, nor has anyone ever learned why they chose the names they did. But we do know that landlords would frequently, for whatever reason, name their made-up plaintiff John Doe, and their fictitious defendant Richard Roe. John & Richard don’t seem to have had any special significance; they likely could’ve been picked because they were just two of the most common names at that time. The surnames (Doe & Roe), on the other hand, both related to deer: a “doe” being a female deer, while a “roe” is a common Eurasian deer species in Britain. But who knows…maybe they were also the real names of genuine people some landlord actually knew & decided to use. We really don’t know.

What we do know, though, is that, over time, they became the standard placeholders in court cases for any anonymous, hypothetical, or unidentified persons. And most jurisdictions still use John Doe even now (as well as “Jane Doe”, its female equivalent). Roe is also still utilized, whenever one case has more than one anonymous or unidentified person involved. Even the federal government uses Doe & Roe; most notably (and back in the news recently), think of Roe v. Wade (where Jane Roe turned out to be Norma Leah McCorvey, who chose to reveal her identity following the Supreme Court’s decision).

The goal for everyone, though, is to never have to use (or be given) the pseudonym of John Doe or Richard Roe. Because there’s very little that’s good usually leading up to that point.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via Twitter (@AndyWebbRadio), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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