Why Do We Say “The Butler Did It”?

In literature, few professions get as bad of rap as butlers. We never say, “the teacher was the threat”, “the fisherman caused the fatality” or “the doctor was the destroyer.” Yet, we have all heard the phrase,

The butler did it”

Why is that? Let’s find out in today’s Wonder Why Wednesday…

Why Do We Say “The Butler Did It”?

Misbehaving butlers in fiction can be traced back to 1893’s “The Musgrave Ritual” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite not being the story’s main villain, the butler is on the wrong side of the law when he tried to rob his employers. Another example comes from 1921 when in “The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner” by Herbert Jenkins the butler is, in fact, the murder.

But neither of those examples get credit for the term “the butler did it.” That distinction belongs to Mary Roberts Rinehart, a famous author and playwright. In 1930, Rinehart published a novel titled The Door, in which the butler is the murderer. Oddly enough, the phrase “the butler did it,” does not appear in that book or any of her other books. Despite that fact, The Door became a major hit and pinning the crime on the butler became a popular detective story trope.

Believe it or not, years later, Rinehart was almost killed by one of her own servants. Here’s the retelling from a Mental Floss article:

In the late 1940s, Rinehart hired a new butler for her summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, declining to promote her longtime chef into the position, which he had wanted for many years. One day, while Rinehart was reading in her library, the chef walked in wearing a shirt with no jacket, a violation of Rinehart’s dress code for her staff. When she asked him where the rest of his uniform was, the chef screamed, “Here is my coat!” while pulling a handgun from his pocket.”

Luckily for Rinehart, the gun jammed and she escaped to another room. Her chauffeur tackled the gunman and the housemaid removed the weapon. However, the attacker broke free and went after Mary again. This time the gardener saved the day and wrested the chef to the ground.

What a story! Rinehart couldn’t have written it better herself.

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