We come into this world nameless until someone names us. And by the power of some natural or divine set of rules, we leave it in pretty much the same fashion. A birth certificate welcomes us in. A death certificate bids us farewell like a byline to the life we just authored. By all accounts, we are promised a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
A birth. A life. A death.
A recent Wired magazine story made the rounds late last year of a hiker on the Appalachian Trail who was only known by his trail name: Mostly Harmless. When this hiker was discovered dead, the internet set out to find his identity—thanks to DNA (more specifically DNASolves) they were successful, able to find out that Mostly Harmless was Vance Rodriguez.
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS), it is estimated that 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year in the United States, with approximately 1,000 of those bodies remaining unidentified after one year.
That’s 1,000 people a year who left this world without a name and remain nameless to this day.
There is no proof that they existed, only that they exited.
A birth. A life. A doe.

The DNA Doe Project

In 2017, DNA Doe Project was founded by Margaret Press, PhD. alongside Forensic Genealogist, Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick. It is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with more than 60 genetic genealogists who volunteer to analyze the DNA associated with John and Jane Doe (unidentified bodies) cases and compare it to the DNA that has been uploaded to GEDmatch, a database that uses autosomal DNA (atDNA) to find familial matches. This can be a close relative match of the doe or distant relation. Then, a family tree can begin to take form and prospective matches can be narrowed down until a doe is hopefully identified. They currently have more than two dozen success stories and counting. As a non-profit, they rely heavily on the generosity of donors to help with the expenses associated with the extensive lab work required for extracting and sequencing DNA from remains.
When I first visited the DNA Doe Project website, I found myself scrolling through the catalog of John and Jane Doe sketches/renderings like a library of lost souls. Some dated back decades while others were only a few years. There were men, women, and children from all different ethnic backgrounds on display. I started to wonder who these people were in life and why they turned up lifeless. What big event or small seemingly insignificant decision turned their fate into a question mark? As I began to feel overcome with sadness, I started to notice the word “Identified” above some of the images and I was quickly reminded that hope is still out there, waiting to guide them home.

Where there is hope, there is help

Can’t donate money? What about DNA? A huge part of the DNA Doe Project is to get those of us [raising my enthusiastically!] who have taken a genetic DNA test through Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) company databases like AncesteryDNA and 23andMe to upload our results to GEDmatch. It’s free to do, but the database does have a new opt-in policy, where your permission will be needed for them to match your DNA against the genetic samples submitted by law enforcement. I encourage you to visit The DNA Doe Project website for more in-depth information.
Often with active criminal cases or forgotten old cold cases, our true crime community is unable to do much to help aside from spreading the word. This is not one of those times. We are the help. We are the hope. You and me. People like us.
Our DNA samples could someday give a nameless doe the ending they too were once promised.
Love this post? Meet the Author.
Tiffany C. has been working as an advertising copywriter for just under a decade in the Boston area. Her interest in true crime started at an early age with Unsolved Mysteries and hit its fever pitch with the Serial podcast. Most recently, after completing the Boston University Certificate program in Genealogy, she’s been looking for new ways to put her writing experience and newfound research skills to good use. Enter Uncovered.com.
Uncovered is building a community around collective impact on cold cases. That includes supporting further education to develop citizen detective skills. Interested in contributing? Join our community, or reach out with a topic you’d like to share with the community.