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Carpenter based this song on a true story. In the early hours of October 11, 1945, a scantily dressed black youth was found by 2 police officers rummaging in an alleyway in Jacksonville, Illinois. He was believed to be mentally retarded, and because of his bizarre behavior he was committed to an institution later that month where he became known as John Doe No. 2. John Doe (or Jane Doe) is the generic name given to unidentified bodies, including, apparently, live ones. In spite of attempts to trace his family, John Doe No. 2 - later John Doe No. 24 - was never positively identified, and he would spend the rest of his life being cared for by the state. In 1976, his name was changed for social security reasons to John Doe Boyd (date of birth unknown). He died November 28, 1993. Carpenter read his obituary in the New York Times while sitting in a Starbucks café in Washington, and wrote the song from his perspective.
In 2000, a biography of John Doe by Dave Bakke was published by Southern Illinois University Press; it was called God Knows His Name: The True Story Of John Doe No. 24
; Carpenter wrote the foreword and also purchased the headstone for his grave, a photograph of which appears between pages 92 and 93 of the book. (thanks, Alexander - London, England, for above 2)
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