Only God knows his name

‘Life’s a mystery, but so, too, is the human heart.’

These are lyrics from a song titled John Doe #24, written by Mary Chapin Carter after she read a New York Times obituary of a man by the same ‘name.’  He was so called because no one ever knew his identity.

As a teenager in 1945, he had been picked up by police in Jacksonville, Illinois, while he was rummaging through trash.  He was carrying no identification and was unable to speak because he was deaf.  The police sent him before a judge, who deemed him feeble-minded and ordered him committed to the Lincoln State School and Colony.

For the next 50 years, he lived in various institutions, homes and nursing homes. No one ever came looking for him. Authorities never learned his name. Many of his caregivers were convinced that he did not have an intellectual disability.

When Mary Chapin Carter read of his death, she wrote the above-mentioned song, included it in an album and sang it on concert tours. Journalist Dave Bakke, who writes for the Springfield Journal-Review, read about the song and became intrigued with the story behind it.

He eventually was able to secure the man’s records from the state and from those documents, constructed a biography of the man with no name. It is titled God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24.

But that is not the end of John Doe’s story. After Mary Chapin Carter read of his death and wrote the song, she purchased a grave marker for John Doe No. 24’s theretofore unmarked grave.

John’s story inspired another writer Rachel Simon, who happened upon Bakke’s book and felt compelled to write a novel, The Story of Beautiful Girl. One of the main characters in the book is based on John Doe No. 24.  The Story of Beautiful Girl, which was published earlier this year, has been on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Stories like this, while tragic and heartbreaking, also give hope. Few people have been more anonymous than John Doe No. 24. But because he could not communicate and no one claimed him, he was shuffled off to a state school.

He represents tens of thousands of individuals who have lived in obscurity and anonymity in similar institutions throughout history. I have to wonder what human potential has been lost because people didn’t know how to give individuals like John Doe No. 24 what they needed.

I have embarked on a quest similar to that of Dave Bakke, writing a book about my Uncle Melrose, who had a profound intellectual disability and who spent nearly 60 years in a state institution. Like Dave Bakke, I want a once obscure story told. I want people to know what a great person my Uncle Melrose was.