Inherited Craziness
A place to share all the nuts found on my family tree

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

John and Jane Doe

St Mary's Church, Great Canfield, Essex Acabashi / CC BY-SA

Recently, I came across the record of the baptism of one of my ancestors, Henry Doe, who was christened at St Mary's Church, Great Canfield, Essex on 19 May 1754. On it, his parents are listed as John and Jane DoeJohn Doe and the then, Jane Brand, a set of my ~6th Great Grandparents, had married at the nearby All Saints Church in Little Canfield on 1 October 1750.

After the requisite pause for giggling at this unlikely combination of names, I wondered when and where the custom had began to call people who you couldn't identify, either John or Jane Doe, according to gender.

We mostly tend to hear the term when an unidentified corpse turns up in a US crime drama, but in fact, the origins are in medieval English law, beginning perhaps as early as the reign of King Edward III (1327–1377).
Originally, John Doe was a sham name used to indicate any plaintiff in an action of ejectment (a legal action to regain property) in civil court. Richard Roe was the counterpart, to indicate the defendant. These fake names were used in delicate legal matters, a practice that was abolished in English law in 1852. Since then, John Doe has been used to indicate any man of unknown name, with Jane Doe used for females. - The Old Farmer's Almanac
Quite why these particular names were picked, however, is lost in time. It may have been simply because they were among the most common at the time.

It would appear that John and Jane Doe had four children (or at least there are records for four), all baptised at St Mary's Church, Great Canfield:
  1. Henry Doe baptised on 19 May 1754
  2. Elizabeth Doe baptised on 23 April 1758 
  3. John Doe baptised on 20 September 1760
  4. John Doe baptised on 20 December 1761
There is also a record at St Mary's, Great Canfield, on 14 November 1761, for the burial of a John Doe 'Infant'. One must, sadly, assume therefore that the 4th child was named John, immediately after his brother had died.

In 1731, at this same church, there was a burial of a 4 year old John Doe, listed as 'son of John Doe'. These could simply be just very common names - all the more spectacular to be able to trace them back so far - or, I suppose one must entertain the idea that, once upon a time, there was a parish foundling, who the overseers had named John Doe, who's descendants thereafter followed the common tradition of naming son after father ...

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