Jane Doe, Alsip, IL, 1980

The Lost and the Least: Unidentified and Unclaimed Persons

This is the second post in a monthly series about the origins of the next Metamor City novel, The Lost and the Least. In this series I examine the real-life tragedies that are overlooked by the news media: the unseen suffering of the forgotten.

Jane Doe, Alsip, IL, 1980

Jane Doe, Alsip, IL, 1980

On September 23, 1980, at approximately 12:19 pm, the body of a Black female was located in the Cal-Sag Channel in Alsip, Illinois. The victim was face down in the fetal position and was naked from the waist down. The victim had six stab wounds to her back and two stab wounds to her chest. The victim’s hands were bound with an electrical cord, and a neck tie around her neck which also bound one hand to her upper legs. Her face was covered with adhesive tape. The victim was found wearing a blue wool sweater, a dark floral blouse, and a beige bra.

– From the FBI ViCAP database

In 2014, the FBI received 876 new reports of unidentified persons: recovered bodies whose identities could not be ascertained. This was actually a light year; in most years since the FBI began keeping records, the number is over 1000. In 2007 there were an astonishing 1788 new cases.

For most of the United States’ history there was no national system for keeping track of unidentified persons. Recovered bodies were kept in morgues within local municipalities, their existence recorded only by local police or sheriff’s offices. Many of these bodies are still waiting, years or decades after their discovery, for someone to claim them, as is the case for the Jane Doe from Alsip mentioned above.

In 2006 the National Institute of Justice began trying to gather these scattered records in one place, the Unidentified Decedent Database. This database was soon folded into the new National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS), where local investigators were encouraged to upload their reports of missing and unidentified persons into the database. With a nationwide reach and the records made accessible to the public over the Internet, it was hoped that more of the unidentified could be found by loved ones who were searching for them.

To date, success has been slim. NamUS has collected 11,828 records of bodies that were either unidentified or unclaimed (i.e., possessing identification but with no known next of kin to be notified about their death). Of these, 1611 cases have been successfully closed — less than 14 percent. NamUS played a role in closing about a quarter of those cases. The rest remain unsolved — 10,216 people who lie unburied, unmourned and, in many cases, unnamed.

And those are just the ones we know about. When we account for the older records that were never entered into NamUS, it is estimated that more than 40,000 human remains cases remain unsolved.

I want to stress that this is happening here in the United States, one of the most advanced, surveilled and interconnected nations in the world. People who want to go “off the grid” generally have to go to extraordinary lengths in order to do so. Yet here we have over forty thousand people, the population of a good-sized city, who are completely unknown to us. The tragedies that led each of them from daily life to an anonymous shelf in a coroner’s freezer are probably as unique and varied as any other life … but we will never know these stories.

Not unless these lost ones can have their names returned to them.

How You Can Help


The entire NamUS database is searchable to the public: case reports, photographs, dental and DNA records — if they’re available, NamUS shares them. The database is also designed to cross-reference with missing persons reports, so if someone has been reported missing, there’s a much better chance of connecting the dots.

As a member of the public you do not need to register to use NamUS — user registration is only required for members of law enforcement and other public officials who are uploading case reports. If you think you may have useful information about a case, you can forward your tips to the case officer listed in the report.

The Doe Network

The Doe Network is an international organization that, like NamUS, attempts to connect unidentified remains with cases of missing persons. You can submit Potential Match Forms if you think you have connected a missing persons report with an unidentified decedent. There are also links to many other resources.

UNT Center for Human Identification

The Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas offers free online training courses to educate people in how missing and unidentified persons cases are conducted. These courses are open to law enforcement, forensic personnel, medical examiners, coroners, missing person clearinghouses, victim advocates, and family members of missing persons.

FBI ViCAP Unidentified Persons

The FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) has about 50-60 open cases of unidentified persons, many of which predate the creation of NamUS. You can view extensive case reports and photographs and submit tips to the investigators.

Posted by chriswlester