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John Doe

Posted by Bruce Kahl on January 02, 2003

In Reply to: John Doe posted by Georgina Wald on January 02, 2003

: Who was John Doe and why does this now mean an un-named American?

I found the following on a web site and closed it before I could save it to check for authenticity:

"John Doe had its beginnings in legal use. From the 15th century to the 19th, John Doe was, in
England, a legal fiction standing specifically for the plaintiff in a dispute over title to
real property. Richard Roe was the name given to the defendant. In order to
avoid dealing with the rigid restrictions legally imposed on such matters in English
common law, someone who wanted to regain possession of land from which he
had unjustly been evicted would bring a different kind of action--an "ejectment"
suit--in the name of John Doe, his fictional tenant.

By bringing the suit in the name of a fictitious person, who could not deny anything
that was said, the landowner was often able to oust the usurper and recover his
land legally. Supposedly, the fictional defendant was a traveler who, while passing
by, just happened to toss the mythical tenant off the property before going on his
way. The chances for victory by the rightful owner were enhanced when the
accused Richard Roe did not, for some reason, appear at the proceedings in
order to defend himself. And the actual person who wrongfully had possession of
the owner's land simply had no legal standing in the suit.

These particular suits were no longer necessary after the 1852 passage of the
Common Law Procedure Act, which eased the previous restrictions. But by then
the legal fictions John Doe and Richard Roe had become conventionalized, and
they are now used frequently in both English and American law. Current use is
quite a bit looser, however. John Doe, Jane Doe, Richard Roe, Jane Roe,
or--if need be--Peter Poe, are, according to Random House Webster's Pocket
Legal Dictionary, used in legal cases and documents, "either to conceal a
person's identity, or because the person's real name is not known, or because it is
not yet known whether the person exists."

We can say, then, that the John Doe of early legal use was always fictitious; the
John Doe of current legal use is sometimes a fiction but more often a real person;
and the John Doe of extended metaphorical use, 'an anonymous, average man', is
a generic--once again not real.

But back to origins. The choice of John is easy enough to understand. It was the
second most popular name in England even earlier than the 15th century (William
took first place). John is used even today as a generic reference (John Barleycorn,
John Q. Public, etc.) The need for a common, well-known fictional name in matters
of law is reflected in early Roman legal proceedings, in which the fictitious persons
included Gaius, Titius, and Seius.

Doe is harder to track down. It does not appear in lists of early inheritable
surnames in England. Nor does it seem to come from the usual "bynames" that
were in use in the Middle Ages--those names that you did not inherit from your
father but acquired yourself. Bynames were derived from either a parent's name
(Peterson), your location (Underhill), your occupation (Smith), or some nickname
(Wiseman). Feverish research has yielded nothing; no "Doe." So I'm stumped, too!
I can only speculate that Doe and Roe were convenient nonsense names, chosen
because they were short and easy to remember. And they rhymed. On the other
hand, there are a few putatively real Doe's and Roe's listed in modern phone
books. Of course, some of them are named "John" or "Richard" or "Jane."