Q From Kevin Webster: I have spent two hours searching the Net for information about the expressions John Doe and Jane Doe that American authorities use for people who cannot be identified. US courts also allow the names to be used by people who do not want to provide their real names in certain cases. Was there a real original John Doe and what was famous enough about him?
A There’s a lot we don’t know about the origins of these names — and others that are sometimes used — but it seems certain that there never was a real John Doe.
The name is known from the eighteenth century — the best-known early example is in Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the laws of England of 1765-69, but it is certainly older — the Oxford English Dictionary editors tell me that they’ve recently found it in a work of 1659: “To prosecute the suit, to witt John Doe And Richard Roe”. Suggestions I’ve seen that it dates back to Edward III’s reign in the fourteenth century seem wide of the mark, though.
It was used in a rather complicated and long since obsolete legal process called an action of ejectment, which would be brought by a wrongfully dispossessed owner who was trying to get his land back. For arcane legal reasons, landowners who wanted to establish their rightful titles would use fictitious tenants in the ejectment action. In order to find whether this imaginary tenant had a right to be in possession, the court had first to establish that the supposed landlord was actually the owner, which settled the true reason for the action. This highly technical procedure was done away with in Britain by an Act of Parliament in 1852 but survives in American states.
We know that it became standard by the time of Blackstone to use the name of John Doe for the fictitious plaintiff and Richard Roe for the equally unreal defendant in such cases. We have no idea where these names came from. However, it does seem likely that the first names were chosen from the most common personal names then in use (John as a generic name also appeared in John Company, a nickname for the East India Company; much more recently, John Q Citizen and John Q Public are American names for the man in the street, based on the same idea). The surnames were both associated with deer (a doe being a female deer, as you will remember from The Sound of Music, and roe is a European deer species), but how they came to be used isn’t known.
These weren’t the only names. John Stiles and Richard Miles were — and still can be — used for the third and fourth participants in an action. Another, long since obsolete, was John Nokes (originally John-a-nokes, a medieval name meaning John of the oak). Jane Doe (or Jane Roe) is a much more recent introduction, for a woman whose real name is unknown or withheld for some reason; these are obvious enough extensions from their male equivalents. (The most famous example is in the abortion-rights case of Roe v Wade in 1973.) She can also be called Mary Major in American federal cases, but the origin of this is totally obscure.