Eli5 How the name “John/Jane Doe got associated with unidentified bodies?


Eli5 How the name “John/Jane Doe got associated with unidentified bodies?

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Both names have been used in the English common law system to refer to an unknown person since before legal records were widely kept. No one knows exactly why those names were picked beyond the fact that John Doe/Jane Doe would have been very common names in medieval England and would have very much been the “Joe Average” of their day. After hundreds of years of use, its just sort of stuck.

The terms also aren’t just used for dead bodies – in legal documents, any unknown male is referred to as a John Doe, any unknown female is referred to as a Jane Doe, and any unknown person of an unknown gender is referred to as a Doe.

Nobody really knows where “John Doe” specifically came from, but it was a made up person in English common law dating back to the late Middle Ages.

The original use of the name was most likely to avoid trial by combat in land disputes. If someone directly brought suit against someone over who held the title to a particular parcel of land, then the defendant could demand trial by combat to settle the ownership dispute. However, if the defendant told a story about how he had leased the land to some fictional John Doe, who had been chased off the land by a fictional Richard Roe who claimed he also had leased the property from the actual defendant, then the case had to go a jury trial. Since based on that made up story, it wasn’t a direct property dispute, but rather a disagreement over who had the right to cancel the lease and recover the property.

Since then it has evolved (primarily in the United States) to be used more generally in the legal field to name any unknown or unidentified person. Like, it is someone that we know exists…we just don’t know what their name is. Injunctions and lawsuits can be brought against a John Doe when you know they exist, but not who they are, such as when copyright holders seek an injunction against someone anonymously posting movies or music for distribution. It is also used to protect the anonymity of defendants in certain very sensitive cases, because while a defendant does have the right to confront their accuser, there is a concern that there is significant risk to the accuser if their identity was made public; in many cases this will apply to minors. It is not uncommon for victim impact statements in sexual assault cases to be submitted by Jane or Emily Doe. Related to that are civil suits brought by minors or other individuals at risk, who are allowed to file anonymously. A famous example of this is Roe v. Wade and the related Doe v. Bolton, which both used pseudonyms to protect the safety of the plaintiffs.

One reason that the use of John/Jane Doe has survived rather than just using a random name or something very common like “John Smith” is because it is clear that it is not the legal name of the person but rather an obvious pseudonym. Using some random name runs the risk of misidentifying a real person. In the case of an unidentified body, the person can be talked about without running the risk of the family members of a missing “John Smith” from believing that their son’s body had been recovered. In the case of a civil or criminal case, it prevents a real “Joe Blow” or “Fred Jones” from being targeted.

EDIT TO ADD: With that original use, it was a legal fiction that everybody typically went along with because a jury trial was preferable to trial by combat. Everybody knew that it wasn’t real, but since nobody objected to it, the court had to treat it as true.

I always understood D.O.E to mean “dead on entry” marked on unidentified corpses in hospital. Males are known as John Doe and females as Jane Doe until identified.

John and Jane because of how common they are and DOA is Dead On Arrival (letter transcribed as Doe because fonetics)

While this is an interesting question, is the answer really so convoluted that it requires an ELI5 response?