When a man dies and can’t be identified, police refer to him as a “John Doe.” Similarly, when an unidentified woman is found dead, she is called “Jane Doe.” Here’s why.
The Word Detective, an old school site from columnist Evan Morris, has the answer. Morris explains that the term dates back to the reign of England’s King Edward III. Back then, there was a legal debate going on about the Acts of Ejectment.
The debate had to do with a hypothetical landowner dubbed “John Doe” who rents property to “Richard Roe,” who then attempts to evict Doe from his own land. According to Morris, the debate was a “hallmark of legal theory.” The moniker John Doe became well known, both in and outside legal circles. Over the years, the name “John Doe” became synonymous with an unknown or unnamed person.
But let’s say there is more than one unidentified person involved in a case. What do we call the other people? Subsequent males are called “Richard Roe” and “John Stiles.” If there are two unknown females, the first is Jane Doe, and the second is Mary Major. In Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case on the legality of abortions, “Jane Roe” was a combination of “Jane Doe” and “Richard Roe.” The plaintiff’s real name was Norma McCorvey.
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