The butler did it

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Book cover of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s ‘The Door’. A sitting room at night, with blue walls and floor. There are portraits, a table with a vase of flowers, a Monstera in a pot, and a chair. At top centre a door stands ajar, with only darkness visible through the gap. At bottom centre a decorative woollen rug, perhaps of Persian origin, has been rolled up at one end. A human hand emerges from the end of the tube, fingers spread, and we can see a white cuff and part of the dark sleeve of a jacket.

Over on the Literature Stack Exchange, user ‘verbose’ asked about the origin of the cliché “the butler did it”. This is a good question, because there simply aren’t enough detective stories with this solution, for it to have become a cliché. Among the Golden Age writers who remain popular today, the nearest misses that I am aware of are Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (1934), in which the murderer is only disguised as a butler, and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (1934), in which a butler steals an emerald necklace, but this is established at the beginning of the novel and not part of the mystery.

Some sources suggest that the cliché originated with Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door (1930). For example, Wikipedia:

Rinehart is also considered[by whom?] the source of “the butler did it” plot device in her novel The Door (1930), although the exact phrase does not appear in her work.

It’s true that Rinehart was more popular in her day than she has since become, and The Door uses some pretty egregious tricks to postpone the solution of the mystery until the very last sentence, something that might make it annoy the readers out of proportion to its significance; but the main problem with this idea is that, as we’ll see below, people were already complaining about criminal butlers in the mid-1920s and so novels published in the 1930s cannot be the origin of the trope.

1. Criminal butlers were a cliché by the mid-1920s

From a review in Life magazine of Owen Davis’ play The Donovan Affair (1926), later made into a film directed by Frank Capra (1929), which features a murderous butler:

The other straight mystery play so far is “The Donovan Affair,” and if it did not have to stand comparison with “The Ghost Train,” it might seem more exciting. But we are getting to the point now where, after fifteen or twenty guests have been grilled and suspected of murder in turn, we not only don’t know who did it, but don’t care. We have a system now whereby we automatically suspect the butler right at the start and then pay no more attention.

Robert Benchley (23 September 1926). ‘Cuteness and Crime’. In Life, volume 88, issue 2290, p. 21.

Criminal servants in general were deprecated by S. S. Van Dine in one of his famous rules:

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person—one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

S. S. Van Dine (1928). ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories’. In The American Magazine, September 1928. Reprinted in Howard Haycroft, ed. (1946). The Art of the Mystery Story, p. 191. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

A character in a 1933 Damon Runyon story makes a joke about the frequency of criminal butlers:

“But,” I say to Ambrose Hammer, “you do not pin the foul deed on any of these parties, but on the butler, because this is the way these things are done in all the murder-mystery movies and plays I ever see, and also in all the murder-mystery books I ever read.”

Damon Runyon (1933). ‘What, No Butler?’. In Blue Plate Special. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

A similar joke appears in a 1934 Rufus King detective novel:

“Leaving us your aunt’s maid Sarah, and Lawrence’s man Barron. Too bad he isn't a butler.”—“Why?”—“Because they're the lads who pull it in the best cases, nine times out of ten.”

Rufus King (1934). The Lesser Antilles Case, p. 48. New York: A. L. Burt.

By 1930, the phrase “the butler did it” was a well-known reference to the cliché, as in this joke about plot spoilers in Judge magazine.

“Oh, you have just started to read it? Isn’t it a swell book? It fooled us right up to the last chapter. Of course the butler did it. Mabel thought the old nurse did it. No, they kill her, too. Still I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a good book tho’. So full of surprises.”

Anon (10 May 1930). ‘The End of a Beautiful Friendship’. In Judge, volume 98, number 2532, p. 15.

A similar joke appears in a cartoon by Norman Mansbridge in Punch magazine for 14 September 1938: Two uniformed British policemen are standing in the street outside the Epic Cinema. In the doorway at the top of some steps a mustachoied doorman in a military-style unform with shoulder-boards, braid, and cap, is talking to a woman whose face we can see through the box-office window, above which a sign indicates that the one-and-sixpence seats are sold out but there are still seats for two-and-sixpence and four-and-sixpence. The cinema is advertising “The Mansion Murder” on a poster showing a corpse with a dagger in its back, a detective wearing an Inverness cape and deerstalker with a magnifying glass and calabash pipe, and a police constable examining the body. Two smaller billboards for the film show scenes with a masked, hooded figure brandishing a revolver in one and a bloody dagger in the other. On the street, the younger policeman jerks his thumb at the poster and says to his older colleague, “I guessed the butler did it”.

2. Detective stories with criminal butlers

I could find no evidence for criminal butlers being a cliché in detective stories. The question was considered by Mike Grost, who noted that

The solution of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door (1930) is notable for being one of only a few real-life examples known to me of an allegedly popular mystery cliché.

Mike Grost. ‘A famous mystery cliché’. mikegrost.com.

Grost was able to discover only two examples prior to Rinehart, both short stories by writers who are now obscure:

YearAuthorTitleIn the collection
1914Hugh C. WeirThe Man with Nine LivesMiss Madelyn Mack, Detective
1921Herbert JenkinsThe Strange Case of Mr. ChallonerMalcolm Sage, Detective

3. Silent films with criminal butlers

So I’m pretty sure that the surprising answer to the question is that the criminal butler was a cliché not of detective stories, but of silent films! In the table below I’ve listed ten silent films with criminal butlers, and another six where an apparently guilty (but actually innocent) butler is a significant suspect. I found them by searching the AFI catalog and IMDb for mysteries with “butler” in the synopsis. The list seems long enough for cinema-goers to have plausibly become tired of the trope by the mid-1920s.

Films in which the butler did it
YearTitleAFI synopsis excerpt
1915The Silent CommandAfter finding a button belonging to the doctor’s butler, the lawyer places the servant under hypnosis and learns thereby that the doctor sent him to murder the old man.
1915The Green CloakDuncan, who had married and then deserted Ruth, double-crossed the gang, and the butler and maid were sent to kill him.
1917The Mystic HourClavering’s butler sees the painting of his dead master, and is so horror stricken that he confesses to murdering Clavering for his money.
1918Just for TonightLady Roxenham agrees to participate in the deception, but later Ted spies her breaking into the major’s safe. After he alerts the household, she and the butler are revealed as notorious thieves.
1918The Voice of DestinyFollowing John’s arrest, the detectives guarding Marie’s house recognize Briggs, the butler, as a wanted criminal, and when he attempts to escape, they shoot him. Marie, in playing with her uncle’s Dictaphone, discovers that his murderer’s voice was captured on the recording. Played at the dying butler’s bedside, the recording leads to Briggs’s confession and John’s release from prison.
1919The Trembling HourRalph is accused of the crime, but George arrives and forces a confession from Mrs. Byrnie’s butler.
1920A Manhattan KnightBy this time, the family butler, who is a member of an underworld gang, has tipped off his friends, who then steal the Fenton jewels.
1920The Bromley CaseFinally, all three are cleared when Tex discovers that the butler did it while attempting to abscond with the contents of the safe.
1924The Great Diamond MysteryIn the climax, the butler is shot and makes a dying confession to Graves’s murder.
1925The VerdictRonsard’s butler comes forward and informs the jury that he killed Ronsard in self-defense when Ronsard attacked him.
Films in which the detective suspected that the butler did it
YearTitleAFI synopsis excerpt
1915The Alster CaseLinda is arguing with Keith, the butler, who is attempting to blackmail her.
1917The Bride’s SilenceNathan’s sister Sylvia hides the knife, and when the butler Bobbins—whose hatred of Nathan was well-known—is arrested, Sylvia remains silent.
1920Luring ShadowsJ. H. Wareing, the treasurer of a New York bank, is found murdered in his library one morning; missing are securities and a necklace he had shown to the butler, Jason, the night before. Also present that night was the family physician, Dr. Barton. Suspicion points to the butler.
1920Circumstantial EvidenceDetermining to solve Nelson’s murder, Tex searches for the butler but discovers him to be innocent.
1921NobodyWhen financier John Rossmore is found murdered in his library, suspicion points to Hedges, his butler, who was instrumental in obtaining his divorce.
1922Finger PrintsAlthough the criminologist places the blame on Wareing’s butler, a reformed burglar, the killer is finally revealed to be Barton himself.