Naming the Dead: Annandale Jane Doe, and the Conundrum of Doe Identification
Trigger warning for discussions of suicide in this article.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked at my phone, and my jaw dropped. And I mean dropped.
News had just broken that the unidentified decedent known as Annandale Jane Doe or Christmas Tree Lady had, after twenty-five years, been identified. Annandale Jane Doe was first discovered in 1996, in the children’s section of the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park Cemetery in Annandale, Virginia. On December 18th, she laid down on a plastic sheet, beside a small Christmas tree decorated with red ribbon, playing Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks doing their 2000-year-old-man routine through a pair of headphones she was wearing, and took her own life. She left two fifty-dollar bills to cover the cost of her cremation and removal, along with the note “Deceased by own hand…prefer no autopsy. Please order cremation with funds provided. Thank you, Jane Doe”.
I first heard about her case about ten years ago, and it’s one that instantly really stuck with me. She carried a couple of comedy cassette tapes with her, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a movie I’d been obsessed with since I was young; her note, designed to make things as easy as possible for whoever found her, stood out. There are so many small details in her death that spoke to the kind of person she was, even though we didn’t know so much as her name. I read up on her case at least a few times a year, checking to see if there were any developments or even any new theories that might give me a rabbit hole to go down. I came to feel as though I sort of knew her, in a way, even though I’d only ever come into contact with the last moments of her life.
So when I saw that she’d been identified, I was really excited. I read up on everything that had been revealed with her identification, everything we knew. And by the time I was done, I felt…strange.
You’ll notice I’ve chosen not to share Annandale Jane Doe’s name here – it’s accessible pretty much anywhere else on the web, and if you want to look it up and learn more about her life and her case, I’m not going to stop you, since it’s exactly the same thing that I did. In short, she seemed to have lived a very troubled and often difficult life, and she eventually chose to end her life on that day in Annandale. And, she chose to do it as a Jane Doe – to be anonymous, which she no longer is or ever will be again.
And to be honest, I don’t know how I feel about that.
There have been huge steps forward in the identification of John and Jane Does – unidentified male or female decedents – in the last few years, and, firstly and most importantly, I would like to make it clear I think it is an almost universally excellent thing. The DNA Doe Project and the Doe Network are great examples of volunteer-run and funded groups doing incredible work to give names back to people who had them forcibly removed by whatever circumstances that led to their death. So many victims of murder or other crimes end up having not just their lives taken from them, but their names, their identities, their personhood, too. Doe identification is a way to return those things to them, and to offer their families and other people in their lives closure and some level of explanation for the loss of their loved one.
But what of people who’ve made the decision to remain anonymous in death? Annandale Jane Doe is not the only example of this – Lyle Stevik, an American man who committed suicide in a hotel in 2001 after booking in under the name of a fictional character, and Mary Anderson, who ended her life in a Washington hotel in 1996, both chose not to share their names. And both of them, like Annandale Jane Doe, have been the focus of long-term attempts to try and identify them, with Stevik successfully identified in 2018, and Anderson’s case ongoing.
In cases like these, I have really mixed opinions – opinions I didn’t really realize I had until Annandale Jane Doe was identified. Identity is such a fundamental part of how we understand the world, the people around us, our place in it, and I think there’s a level of discomfort with the idea that someone might genuinely choose to renounce it. Going to the extent of choosing to die unknown is a really scary thought for a lot of us, but, in the same way, I’m sure there are people out there who, like me, understand where the urge comes from – if you’ve dealt with mental illness, the thought of just walking away from everything and everyone in your life has probably crossed your mind.
And if someone chooses to end their life and remain anonymous after the fact, should we be allowed to take that from them? There are plenty of arguments in favour of it – providing closure for families, for one. In the case of Annandale Jane Doe, this is a tough one, however, because she seemed to have a very bad relationship with her family – she cut herself off from them at a relatively young age, and described abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her parents (which her surviving sister contests) in her childhood. She had entirely distanced herself from her family at the time of her death, for whatever reason she chose to do that, but now, her identity is back in their hands again. She made the choice to put distance between herself and her family in life, but, in death, it’s been taken from her. Even if she had shared a good relationship with her family. she still chose to die anonymously; does her family’s right to know what happened to her overrise her own personal wishes?
And there’s also the argument to be made that these people were not in the right state of mind to be making a decision of such magnitude – that their suicide speaks to a lack of mental wellbeing or clarity. But that also begs the question – at what point do mentally ill people or people struggling with their mental health lose the right to make choices about themselves? Can we ascertain if they were at that point after they die? Do we take the act of suicide alone as proof that they weren’t in their right mind? Annandale Jane Doe left a note and money, indicating she had at least a decent grasp of what she was doing and what would need to happen after she died – not an indicator that she was entirely well, but at least not completely out of touch with reality.
Of course, she’s dead, and, depending on what you believe, probably doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what’s going on upon this mortal coil. But, as a society, we generally decry the thought of disrespecting a deceased person’s final wishes – and, while there’s some debate about the morality of identifying Does like this one, the general feeling seems to be support for their identification. It’s often treated more as a mystery to be solved – certainly how I felt about it for a long time – more than it is a direct disregarding of the victim’s decision.
Not to mention – why? Why do we feel the need to get to the bottom of these cases, to identify and name people who, explicitly or implicitly, have told us they want to remain unknown? I asked myself that same question, especially in the aftermath of the identification of Annandale Jane Doe, and it’s tough; yes, I hoped her family or loved ones might get some closure, but even before she was ID’d, she had already chosen to stay anonymous, regardless of her relationship with the people around her.
Why did I feel, along with so many people, that needed to change? I have no personal right to her name, her story, her identity, but now I have it, along with thousands of other people who followed the case. Is that fair? Is it right? If the circumstances of someone’s death are interesting or curious or eerie or affecting enough, is that a good reason to ignore their final wishes? Do the dead owe us a name and identity, and do we owe it to them to find those, whether they wanted us to or not?
When it comes to people who’ve chosen to die anonymously, I’m not sure there is a right answer to this question. I’ve chosen not to name Annandale Jane Doe here, but her identity is out there, along with the names of a number of other people who committed suicide anonymously, and I don’t know how to feel about it. Annandale Jane Doe’s last wish to the world was to remain unknown – and now, she never will be again.
What do you think about this case, and other cases revolving around Does who have chosen to stay anonymous? I would love to hear your thoughts or experiences in the comments.
More of my true crime writing:
(header image via WLJA)