TL;DR: The criminal butler was not a cliché of detective stories, but of silent films!
Below I’ve listed ten silent films with criminal butlers, and another six where an apparently guilty butler is a significant suspect. I found these by searching the AFI catalog and IMDb for mysteries with “butler” in the synopsis.
Silent films with criminal butlers
||AFI synopsis excerpt
||The Silent Command
||After 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.
||The Green Cloak
||Duncan, who had married and then deserted Ruth, double-crossed the gang, and the butler and maid were sent to kill him.
||The Mystic Hour
||Clavering’s butler sees the painting of his dead master, and is so horror stricken that he confesses to murdering Clavering for his money.
||Just for Tonight
||Lady 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.
||The Voice of Destiny
||Following 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.
||The Trembling Hour
||Ralph is accused of the crime, but George arrives and forces a confession from Mrs. Byrnie’s butler.
||A Manhattan Knight
||By this time, the family butler, who is a member of an underworld gang, has tipped off his friends, who then steal the Fenton jewels.
||The Bromley Case
||Finally, all three are cleared when Tex discovers that the butler did it while attempting to abscond with the contents of the safe.
||The Great Diamond Mystery
||In the climax, the butler is shot and makes a dying confession to Graves’s murder.
||Ronsard’s butler comes forward and informs the jury that he killed Ronsard in self-defense when Ronsard attacked him.
Silent films with butlers as significant suspects
||AFI synopsis excerpt
||The Alster Case
||Linda is arguing with Keith, the butler, who is attempting to blackmail her.
||The Bride’s Silence
||Nathan’s sister Sylvia hides the knife, and when the butler Bobbins—whose hatred of Nathan was well-known—is arrested, Sylvia remains silent.
||J. 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.
||Determining to solve Nelson’s murder, Tex searches for the butler but discovers him to be innocent.
||When financier John Rossmore is found murdered in his library, suspicion points to Hedges, his butler, who was instrumental in obtaining his divorce.
||Although the criminologist places the blame on Wareing’s butler, a reformed burglar, the killer is finally revealed to be Barton himself.
Detective stories with criminal butlers
I could find no evidence for criminal butlers being a cliché in detective stories until after silent films had already run the trope into the ground. 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:
Evidence that 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:
- 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.
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 is 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.
Or as in this cartoon by Norman Mansbridge in Punch magazine for 14 September 1938.