Who is John Doe?

John Doe, caucasian, approximately 45 years old, evidence of blunt-force trauma to the base of the skull…

Pretty familiar if you’ve been exposed to the barest minimum of American crime fiction: “John” and “Jane Doe” used to refer to an unidentified victim or suspect in a criminal case. But why these names in particular?

The practice of using placeholder names in cases of an unknown or hypothetical person, or to protect someone’s identity, is a very old one. In Ancient Roman law, the names “Numerius Negidius” and “Aulus Agerius” were used to refer to a defendant and plaintiff respectively. Both were plays on words: Numerius and Aulus were legitimate first names, but Numerius Negidius could also mean I refuse to pay, and Aulus Agerius, I set in motion.

The use of “John Doe” is not quite as ancient, but was in use at least as early as the 14th century. It was often used alongside “Richard Roe” in complicated cases of ejection, with John Doe being the defendant, or lessee, and Richard Roe the landlord or ejector. As the process for ejection was quite complicated, landlords would instead present a case of the fictitious John Doe and Richard Roe. In determining the claim of Richard Roe to the land, the courts would be required to determine that the land in fact belonged to the real landlord. This was a quicker way of establishing the true ownership of the land, rather than the complicated process of ejection.

The use of John Doe and Richard Roe in the UK had become obsolete by the mid-19th century due to legal reforms, though a John Doe injunction is still invoked occasionally, when an unknown person has confidential personal information that one wishes to prevent being released. This was the case in 2005 when lawyers for J.K Rowling blocked the sale of stolen chapters of one of the Harry Potter novels.

As to why John Doe and Richard Roe in particular? Unfortunately we have no record as to why those names in particular were used, though it’s more than likely that both first names were used as examples of generic, everyday names. John Doe was used in this way in the past, as in the 1941 film Meet John Doe, for example. Doe and Roe are a little more mysterious. Both refer to deer: a doe is a female deer, and roe is a species of European deer. It would be tempting to imagine all sorts of symbolism for these choices, but perhaps they were chosen by someone who had a particular fondness for deer. Or, as I suspect, deer were considered particularly commonplace animals in England at the time, as common as the names John and Richard.

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