"The butler did it" is a common trope indicating a hackneyed solution to a mystery. I have read several classic mysteries from the 1920s and earlier (Poe, Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers, etc.) but do not recall a single instance of the butler's actually being the criminal mastermind, let alone enough such stories to justify the phrase's use as a cliché. The one example I can think of, Agatha Christie's 1925 short story "The Listerdale Mystery," plays with the trope rather than using it straightforwardly.

TV Tropes claims that the idea of the butler as perp was already clichéd by 1928. But the page gives no little evidence for this. The page discusses two origins for the phrase, both dubious:

  • It is often attributed to Mary Roberts Rinehardt's The Door (1930). But the page also says that the phrase does not actually occur in the book.
  • It is part of rule #20 in S. S. Van Dine's 1928 essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." But criminal butlers are not mentioned in that rule, nor anywhere else in the essay as far as I can see.

In any case, TV Tropes treats the idea of "the butler did it" as cliché rather than discussing what led to its being seen as a cliché in the first place. Google Ngrams shows that the phrase was practically unknown before the 1920s and then jumped in usage:

Google Ngram showing great increase in usage of phrase "the butler did it" after 1920. The phrase is unknown before then.

But what led to this increase in the phrase's use? What mystery books or stories from the early days of the genre had the butler as the perpetrator of the crime, leading to this plot device becoming a cliché?

Note: this is not off-topic as asking for a list, because I'm not asking for recommendations. This is more along the lines of the many "What is the earliest example of X?" questions asked on this site before. The only difference is that I'm asking for a series of early examples rather than just one, because the sheer number of examples evidently led to this becoming an undesirable way to structure a mystery plot.

  • 1
    There are things that have become clichés with just a single example, if they're egregious enough — consider "jumped the shark". So maybe Mary Reinhardt's The Door really was the originating example. Looking in Google books, the phrase doesn't appear very often before 1930.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 9, 2021 at 13:51
  • So was the solution to the mystery in Rinehart's The Door sufficiently egregious to have given rise to the phrase? She certainly seems to have been popular enough that her book could have been the source. One might have to read the book to find out, though.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 9, 2021 at 14:01
  • @PeterShor my reading of the TV Tropes page was that Rinehardt is cited as the originator of "the butler did it" in the same way that Holmes is often credited with saying "Elementary, my dear Watson" even though that phrase isn't actually in Conan Doyle. I'ven't read Rinehardt's novel, however, so you may be right that the phrase is traceable back to a single, egregious use of the device.
    – verbose
    Mar 10, 2021 at 10:35
  • It may be that ‘butler’ is, in the vernacular, a stand-in for any trusted servant. For example, Jeeves is routinely referred to as a butler, but was actually a valet. So, for the hoi polloi, who barely have time to cook dinner, ‘butler’ encompasses also ‘valet’, ‘private secretary’, etc.
    – user5699
    Mar 14, 2021 at 22:33

3 Answers 3


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

Year Title AFI synopsis excerpt
1915 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.
1915 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.
1917 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.
1918 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.
1918 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.
1919 The Trembling Hour Ralph is accused of the crime, but George arrives and forces a confession from Mrs. Byrnie’s butler.
1920 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.
1920 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.
1924 The Great Diamond Mystery In the climax, the butler is shot and makes a dying confession to Graves’s murder.
1925 The Verdict 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

Year Title AFI synopsis excerpt
1915 The Alster Case Linda is arguing with Keith, the butler, who is attempting to blackmail her.
1917 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.
1920 Luring Shadows 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.
1920 Circumstantial Evidence Determining to solve Nelson’s murder, Tex searches for the butler but discovers him to be innocent.
1921 Nobody When financier John Rossmore is found murdered in his library, suspicion points to Hedges, his butler, who was instrumental in obtaining his divorce.
1922 Finger Prints 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:

Year Author Title In the collection
1914 Hugh C. Weir The Man with Nine Lives Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective
1921 Herbert Jenkins The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner Malcolm Sage, Detective

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:

  1. 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.

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 with a magnifying glass, inverness cape, deerstalker, and calabash pipe, and a police constable examining the body. Two billboards 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”.

  • Another its-a-cliché-now reference: the short story "What, No Butler?" by Damon Runyon, published 1933. " '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.' "
    – MJ713
    Apr 29, 2023 at 2:46

Here’s my attempt at more skeptical assessment. I’ll rely mostly on some practical considerations.

What experts say

Experts don’t know exactly how it happened. Professor B.J. Rahn in The Oxford companion to crime and mystery writing mentions a couple of novels where the butler is a suspect and tells us

Thus, whether the butler did it or not, it is clear that it has become customary to accuse him. Because he usually is not guilty, the phrase has passed into lighthearted general parlance.

This seems reasonable, but this account lacks details (only two novels are mentioned), and the author uses the word “speculating” in the next paragraph. With more evidence, this could be more convincing. Some support for this I found in the book The Art Of The Mystery Story (cited in the Original Answer); Stepehen Leacock’s story:

Of course he didn’t really kill Sir Charles, but the local police always arrest the butler.

Oxford dictionary of modern quotations says that the origin of the phrase is unclear:

Nigel Rees, in Sayings of the Century (1984), quotes a correspondent who recalls hearing it at a cinema c.1916 but the origin of the phrase has not been traced

Rees’s later book Mark my words (2002) repeats that the origins remain untraced.

The Guardian article blames Mary Rinehart’s The Door:

After the commercial success of The Door, the butler was now an easy target for comedians and satirical writers alike who quickly pounced on the butler-as-murderer archetype. Damon Runyon's 1933 short story "What, No Butler?" is an obvious riff on the cliché and PG Wodehouse's 1957 comic novel "Something Fishy" was published in the US as "The Butler Did It".

But was Runyon’s story a reaction to the book? The article doesn’t give citations, so it is hard to check. I searched for the word “butler” in two Rinehart’s biographies, but couldn’t find anything interesting. I skimmed through Rinehart’s fan mail related to The Door - to no avail. (It was published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post, and readers sent letters even before they knew the murderer.)

Silent movies

There’s also a novel hypothesis in the Original Answer. Silent movies could influence the trope! BookRiot article explains:

the source is actually silent films, listing 16 that had butlers that did it or were suspected of doing a crime between 1915 and 1922, which could explain the public being familiar with, and subsequently sighing over, the trope in later literature.

In books, the criminal’s identity is important because we invest our energy in solving the intriguing puzzle. Do movies work the same?

E.g. I enjoyed Paddington 2. I remember that Paddington was a really nice bear and was wrongly convicted. But the villain, the crime… I’m at loss. I certainly don’t remember if there was a butler in the movie!

I know that it’s hard to find a compelling whodunit movie mystery, and a classic example of one, The Last of Sheila, wasn’t a big hit.

I’m a little confused. I need to consult practitioners’ opinion.

Screenwriter Dennis Palumbo explains that viewers don’t remember the details of the plot, so writers don’t rely on intricate mysteries. Instead, they pay attention to the characters:

In the thriller Fractured, what was the mistake Anthony Hopkins made that proved he killed his wife?
You got me.

the best mysteries […] are also about the exploration and resolution of psychological tension. In other words, how do the characters interact? What do they want?

as much as I admire the plotting in the film The Last of Sheila, I don’t love the movie because I don’t care about anyone in it.

Similar complaints in silent era (AFI page for The Voice of Destiny):

An anonymous reviewer in the 29 June 1918 Motion Picture News complained, "Little Marie is not given much of a part in this picture. Of the rest of the characters, none gets any sympathy because none deserves it...

The mystery writer's handbook highlights the importance of sympathy for the character in movies (rather than action). The identity of the killer is not always that important:

In a prize-fight picture, two fighters merely battering each other into senseless hulks to the screaming of the crowd will arouse boredom. But if one of them is a Clifford Odets hero whose broken hand will forever bar him from playing the violin, the suspense can become unbearable.

If a detective story depends merely on establishing the identity of the murderer, or the means of murder, or the like, it does not have true suspense. It has instead curiosity. This is why many simple detective stories are destroyed when the criminal is revealed, but a truly suspenseful story remains suspenseful each time.

The motion picture Dial M for Murder remains suspenseful even for those who saw the stage production and who know precisely how the true murderer will be foiled.

Vox.com recommends The Human Nature of Playwriting by American playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson:

A creative piece of writing – play, story, poem rides on emotion. Usually on the emotion of a central character. By emotion I mean a hunger, a desire, something burning under that character, humming and beating like a motor, sending him forward.

OK, so movies rely on characters driven by personal desire - but detectives like Hercule Poirot in whodunit books have mostly professional relation to the crime! How can movies make the audience interested? Experts say that writers connect the crime with the personal life of the protagonist.

It’s the most effective way to generate empathy with the audience

Here’s Girl in the Web (1920):

Esther's clever investigation seems suspicious to the detectives assigned to the case, but in reality she is tracking down the culprit, who turns out to be Ferguson's new man-servant[…] Esther's efforts also bring the Prices back together, and she wins herself a mate in Ferguson.

The crime here is just theft, but it’s OK (nobody cares about murder either). What’s important is that the heroine fulfils her ambitions in proving her abilities, bringing order to the family, and finding a boyfriend. The crime and the criminal are less valuable.

So movies seem to have more diversity in the choice of the perpetrator. It shouldn’t surprise us that we find criminal butlers there! According to David Bordwell, the same is correct for the theatre:

The suspects are both high and low: businessmen, doctors, lawyers, dowagers, flappers, playboys, ne’er-do-wells, gangsters, and servants

Let’s show the listed movies are not strictly about solving the puzzle.

The Silent Command:

Unable to pay for the operation that cured his daughter, a man promises to surrender her to the doctor on her eighteenth birthday [!!!]. Knowing that the physician wishes to make her the subject of his experiments with hypnotism, the distressed father ultimately reneges on his promise, whereupon the doctor hypnotizes the girl from afar.

This is melodrama. The heroes have a problem with this doctor. To save the girl, her boyfriend must disclose the doctor’s evil deeds (a real villain of the story). The butler is not in the credits.

The Green Cloak is also about using hypnotism to acquit the girl (this time by her father). The butler seems to be the main villain (openly hinted before the murder: “When the butler appears, Duncan is visibly disturbed”).

The Mystic Hour. Guido is struggling with the irrational and unconscious. He suspects that he’s a murderer. Eventually, he outpours his frustrations into the painting of his dreams. Seeing the result, the horror-stricken butler confesses. So the murder is solved by solving a real problem (with the unconscious).

In Just for Tonight, Ted really wants to restore his finances and to win beautiful Betty Blake. Pursuing this, he accidentally solves the robbery. This is a romcom, so the crime doesn’t seem important.

How many silent mysteries are there? I got an e-copy of Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: a comprehensive filmography by Ken Wlaschin. Searching for “American” gave me 1091 matches. It’s a rude assessment and includes titles before 1915. I tried Advanced search on IMDB. It gave me 361 mystery titles (1915 to 1925) and 465 crime ones. “Crime + mystery” produced 39 matches. So, 361 + 465 – 39 = 787.

10+ or 20+ titles out of 800 – seems more like diversity than a cliché?

I conclude that movies have more diversity for practical reasons, the plot is not that important, and the audience for hypnotic doctors and 18-year old virgins doesn’t seem sophisticated enough to have much cultural influence or care about plot intricacy. Solutions in these 1-hour films are simple. They need not to be obvious (and for some films, like The Donovan affair, it’s more important), but they don’t inspire analysis. Some movies have the butler as the main villain, and sometimes he’s only an accessory. It’s not clear why viewers would pay attention.

What do experts think? David Bordwell only mentions, “At this point in history, having hired help commit the crime wasn’t yet out of bounds.” Wlaschin in an entry on The Other Half of the Note (1914) says:

of those rare mysteries where the butler actually did do it

Maybe we can find some evidence that the viewers were unhappy? I noticed that AFI pages have references for the press coverage.

The Verdict.

Variety says “one of the best independent films ever” and “enough touches to keep it away from the sordid and conventional”.

Exhibitor's Trade Review: “usually pleases movie-goers, when they are kept guessing as to the real criminal's identity and this is accomplished neatly in "The Verdict."

The Film Daily gives more reviews: Evening World says “most everybody is kept guessing right up to the final fadeout”. Morning Telegraph mentions “flimsy dramatic finish”, but it probably relates to melodramatic issues of the finale, and the review is itself positive.

The Bromley Case.

The Billboard: “solving of the mystery comes at the very end, with a pleasant surprise”.

The Moving picture world: “Like the others of the series it is strong on suspense, and baffles the average person who would solve its secret before the last reel enters the game”. It also says the housekeeper shot the victim while he was struggling with the butler.

The Great Diamond Mystery

Exhibitor's Trade Review: “surprise twist neatly turned, for the identity of the real assassin is kept to the last.”

Even for 1929 The Donovan Affair we have East Liverpool Review with “the conclusion, which comes as a complete but logical surprise”.

What, no butler? We don’t see any complaints about the trope. The killer’s identity is only one element of a picture and works mostly because the audience cares about the characters.

Overall, it’s hard to tell things about the early audience. Was it interested in theories? Wasn’t it more naïve (the viewers were afraid of the train, or something?)?

I examined practical issues, experts’ opinion, and evidence. Right now, this seems like valuable research that helps to show that the trope wasn’t popular before 1930. So, was the trope popular in 1920s? I’m not sure how to conduct this research, so I’ll reuse the evidence kindly provided by the OA.


… 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. It may turn out that the butler didn’t do it, but it’s a safe bet that none of the suspected guests did, either.

Two problems with literal interpretation.

From the writer’s side: OK, everybody suspects the butler from the start. Only experienced playwright Owen Davis doesn’t know that. Somehow, his play is a hit despite everyone knowing how it ends. Then Columbia decides to adapt it into its first all-talking picture. Which is demonstrated with a special note asking not to reveal the ending. The movie is a success too.

From the critic’s side: If the play’s problem is its predictability, why it might look better if not the comparison with the other play? How will it save us from the spoiler? Why we don’t care after guests’ve been interrogated?

If there’s another explanation that doesn’t have this difficulties, it might be reasonable to accept it.

I think the critic means that we suspect someone seemingly innocent (for example, the butler) and stick with this intuition not to be overwhelmed with too many twists.

Susanna Calkins on CrimeReads site gives this example:

Burns Mantle, in his review of “The Bride” (1924), helps us see some of these conventions: “You know what mystery comedies are. They’re plays in which the butler is never what he pretends to be and the smartest secret service agent on the force takes charge of the last act and collects automatics from all the other members of the cast.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, May 11, 1924).

It doesn’t mean that we figured it out: the butler trope comes from plays. Just this play had a criminal butler, and the convention is that the characters are not what they seem.

The play creates twists by moving suspicion from one guest to another. Benchley doesn’t want to invest his attention into this game: why should he think the current main suspect did it, if the next minute we have to suspect someone else? One might get irritated by constant twist; e.g., see this IMDB user review of a Netflix movie:

There are too many turns that cannot be tied together into a consistent narrative. This may leave you almost betrayed by the story.

This is too common for mystery plays, The Ghost Train’s mechanism for creating suspense seems not so outdated to the critic. Too many twists – he doesn’t care – he says it might be OK play “provided you give much of a darn who killed Jack Donovan anyway”.

Robert Benchley was a famous humorist, and “automatically suspect the butler” is just a joke. He sticks to one suspect because there’s no consistency: anyone could’ve done it!

Academic support for this is in FORM AND FORMULA IN DETECTIVE DRAMA by Charles Bernard LaBorde (PDF):

The favorite choice for the identity of the murderer is the least likely person. It was mystery writers' fondness for this approach that prompted Robert Benchley's "The butler did it," since that often unassuming, colorless type is as least likely as anyone.

Consistency with other reviews

Dana Skinner in The Commonweal (1926-09-15) guessed the culprit right from the start:

But perhaps I can say, with all propriety, that, as a somewhat hardened viewer of mysteries, my first suspicion, which I discarded for the simple reason that it seemed too obvious, turned out correct.

But what he means is just that he chose the least likely candidate:

The time has come when most people decide in the first act that the seemingly most innocent of all parties must turn out to be the culprit—not because of any semblance of logic, but because the hackneyed method has been to direct suspicion everywhere except in the right direction.

Vogue (1926-11-01) is happy with the play:

In what it tries to do, “The Donovan Affair” succeeds admirably. It is absorbing, thrilling, frightening.

Elizabeth Jordan in America; A Catholic Review of the Week (1926-09-25) doesn’t see a cliché problem:

certainly since “ The Bat” we have seen no better example of skilled dramatic craftsmanship than it offers us

And, of course, according to the good old formula of mystery plays, in the end the guilty wretch proves to be the person least likely to have committed the crime.

There is great fascination in good mystery plays, but there is also great sameness.

She jokes that in her play the murder will be committed by the baby. So, some critics like the play, some criticize the ending because the motive is weak, but the butler cliché is not there.


  1. 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.

One can imagine Van Dine wanted to punish bad writers for using a bad solution too often. This doesn’t seem right. Van Dine writes this as a practitioner. Writers’ rules are popular on the Internet, and they are usually about what was learned through practice. Owen Davis in his autobiography says: “they are not words of wisdom at all, they are simply scars from the battlefield.” How to write is practical or tacit knowledge.

Oxford companion seems to agree:

their combined practice in forging new, longer narratives resulted in a collection of distinct conventions

I think Van Dine generalized from his own practice (how to choose the culprit most effectively, what feels right) and the best works of colleagues. He says that there are no examples of a servant-perpetrator.

So the “bottom-up” explanation (via practice) seems like a default, and the burden of proof is on those who prefer more prescriptive take.

That said, there’s some evidence for this claim too.

Van Dine states explicitly:

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience.

Tropes used too often are placed separately under Rule 20:

I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often

This is consistent with the opinion of his colleague. Nigel Rees in Mark my words says:

Ronald Knox, compiling a list of rules for this kind of fiction in his introductions to The Best Detective Stories of the Year, 1928, noted: ‘The only person who is really scratch on morals is the aged butler. I cannot off-hand recall any lapse of virtue on the part of a man who has been with the family for sixteen years. But I may be wrong; I have not read all the detective stories.’

Some version of Occam’s razor might be applicable: we predict we’ll not find books with murderous servants – this is exactly what happened (according to the OA). To assume Van Dine meant another medium isn’t economical.

Was this rule even invented by Van Dine in 1928? Here’s The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913) by Carolyn Wells:

The next character to be chosen must be our criminal. Here again is one, who, if he is to be convicted, must not be too deeply in the reader's sympathy. And yet he must be a worth-while character; it is old-fashioned, now, to have the crime committed by the butler or the private secretary.

Maybe we’ll find something in The Door reviews?

The Atlanta Constitution is full of praise: “one of the best mystery novels of the age”, no butler mentioned.

Saturday Review doesn’t complain either:

The narrative is smooth and at all times entertaining, and the solution, although not entirely satisfactory, is certainly well concealed.

New Outlook: “The denouement is logical and startling.” No butler again.

Now we have movie reviews, theatre reviews, and mystery books indicating the trope wasn’t popular in 1920s.


Judge magazine (1930):

“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.”

And here’s 1933 Runyon’s story What, No Butler?

“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.”

One way to think about it: the writers are ridiculing the clichéd mysteries. Since there are no such books, we have to return to previous discussion of movies and theatre – which looks like a stalemate. Another way: the writers used the butler for some unclear reason. But it’s hard to figure out why the butler.

Returning to practical considerations, I listen sometimes to podcasts with comedians, and they say that they make jokes not because it’s true, but because it’s funny.

How jokes work? Writers like to say it’s important to use precise details. Suppose the author writes: “Of course Mr. Smith did it.” Or “Of course Jane Jones did it.” Something is wrong here: who is that Mr. Smith – it’s hard to have a vivid image. It’s not funny – the author has to be more precise. The same book The Art Of The Mystery Story cited in the OA has a good example:

He can say that the butler did the murder, or the chief of detectives did it, or charming little Candace (“friends called her Candy”) did it, or the quiet librarian did it, or Jim did it to shield Mary, or Count Xerxes did it because Solange had got him under her skin…

So we can’t have “Jim did it”, it should be “Jim did it to shield Mary” – but the joke loses tightness now! We need some time to process the situation. If that’s correct, of course the butler did it – everybody else has a name!

Butlers are both authoritative and subordinate. Most people don’t have butlers, so there’s reason for envy. They are somewhat emblematic of the genre: as Adam Sandler puts it in Murder Mystery:

I don't even think there are butlers. That's just a word created for those goofy books you're addicted to.

Some comic (and scapegoat) potential of the butler is discussed in a thesis Liminal Butlers by Katie Smith (PDF).

In Runyon’s story, the narrator states that the culprit must be the butler because this what he gets from all the plays, films, and books. When the perpetrator is revealed, by coincidence he happens to be a professional butler out of job. As a practitioner, Runyon could find it useful for his character to make a zany claim, which later will turn out to be true in the universe of “Guys and Dolls”. Runyon’s life and works were connected to Broadway. Now I remember something from Calkins’ research…

The detective and the butler were so prevalent that actor Reynolds Denniston, the chief detective in “Whispering Wires,” had the wild idea to create the “stage detectives association.” Not to be left out, this venture was soon followed by the establishment of the “stage butlers association” by Stanley Harrison, who plays a butler in the same play. (Unfortunately, I could find no clues as to what may have happened to either of these associations.” (Washington Post, April 29, 1923, p.64).

Alexander Woollcott joked about “one of the many butlers in which such dramas abound”.

Now I see my mistake. I thought the butler was just a random character interchangeable with everybody else. It's not correct.

Comedian Jack Gilford employed this line in his routine in 1938. But Gilford doesn’t say it was a reference to a popular cliché. He says he, Jack Gilford, was the first person to use it in a comedy way. A book 170 years of show business tell it this way:

“He went out on the stage and did his movie routine, in which he gave quick capsule summaries of various kinds of movies, with a description of a Grade B mystery where the first scene has a castle on a hill, the moon scudding behind the clouds, and when the hero knocks on the door the butler opens it. And, Jack said, "We all knew then that The Butler Did It." The line has become part of the language and Jack invented it. That opening-night audience laughed.

Cafe Society : the wrong place for the right people by Barney Josephson:

Everybody's copying his routines, his slow-motion golf ball, his movie scenes. Jack Gilford became the byword in entertainment.

Maybe the phrase was used in comic context before, but Gilford can claim his routine was popular and was copied.

A mystery writer Chris Lansdown examined Runyon’s story in his blog and, being a practitioner, wasn’t convinced by satire claims:

Very clearly, in context, this was not a criticism of the butler as a culprit, but playing with the audience’s expectations to set up a joke.

He also speculates that the phrase could come from jokes (about the butler never being the culprit). It’s not far from B.J. Rahn’s suggestions we started with.

To conclude.

Experienced practitioner thinks the trope probably came from jokes.

Respected scholar doesn’t believe in “criminal butlers” examples influencing the trope.

The evidence gathered by the OA seems to support this too now.

I conclude that most plausibly there were no examples whatsoever. It happened through practice (bottom-up). It’s not clear were the jokes based on the butler being the suspect, “least likely to be guilty”, or practical needs. Anyway, this is beyond the scope of the question, which is about examples of criminal butlers.

But people with different worldviews have different intuitions of what is clear. Further research is needed to settle the question.


This is an example from real life, not fiction, but it predates the fictional examples of the other answers.

In 1900, William Marsh Rice, a wealthy New York businessman who made his fortune off the backs of enslaved laborers in Texas, was murdered by his butler/valet, Charles Jones, who conspired with Rice's lawyer, Albert Patrick, to murder Rice and to forge a new will in Patrick's favor.

In Rice's actual will, he left his fortune for the founding of Rice Institute, now Rice University, in Houston, Texas. Thanks to an eagle-eyed bank employee, Patrick and Jones's conspiracy was uncovered, the real will was reinstated, and the institute/university was founded.

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