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Q: Origin of "The Butler Did It" ( Answered,   13 Comments )
Subject: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: quoteman-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 09 May 2002 10:14 PDT
Expires: 09 May 2003 10:14 PDT
Question ID: 13993
I am trying to find any pre-1938 usage of the phrase "the butler did
it."  I only want to pay the fee for evidence that proves to be
correct when I check the original book or article cited.  I have
already checked two books by Mary Roberts Rinehart said to be the
origin on various web pages, but in both cases this phrase does not
appear in the books mentioned.  The phrase must be "the butler did
it," not some other reference to a butler or butlers.

Request for Question Clarification by thx1138-ga on 11 Jul 2002 13:10 PDT
Hi quoteman,

Could this be the answer ???
"You're certain to have heard the old movie expression "The butler did
it." How about a visit to its place of origin? In 1886, an elaborate
Victorian estate was built near Kissimmee on 13 acres of swamp land.
The "Grimm House," built for Horace Grimm and his family, is just five
minutes from Disney World. Formerly housing the Grimm Funeral Parlor,
the Grimm family began a rapid demise in 1929, succumbing to their
son's insanity, the stock market crash, and their butler's intrigue
with murder. Thus, the birth of the expression"

Request for Question Clarification by justaskscott-ga on 15 Jul 2002 00:16 PDT
I have seen references to this phrase appearing in three works by Mary
Roberts Rinehart: The Circular Staircase, The Bat (by Rinehart and
Avery Hopwood), and The Door.  I checked e-texts of The Circular
Staircase and The Bat, and like you, I found no usage of "The butler
did it".

However, have you checked The Door as well?  It's not online -- it was
published in 1930, and therefore its copyright hasn't run out.  I'll
try to find it in a library tomorrow, and I'll see if it uses the

Also, I'll see if I can find it in the stage version of "The Bat", as
opposed to the novel of "The Bat".

Of course, if you've already checked these works, you can let me know.
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
Answered By: leader-ga on 23 Feb 2003 16:56 PST

It was a difficult and interesting one as you might see that various
members of the Google Answers community chipped up with answers but
the origin remains a mystery. I tried myself and at last came out with
something really nice.

During my research I found out that various sources of phrase and
quotation weren’t sure of the origin
and others say that the latest phrase dates back to 1938. SO WHERE DID
IT ORIGINATE? Actually, the first mention of the phrase "the butler
did it" dates back to nineteenth century in the famous novel by
Charles Dickens "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". The phrase wasn't
written by Charles Dickens but by the publisher of the book Thos Wobey
who added the phrase as the book was published two years after the
death of Charles Dickens. THUS starting a literary tradition. Refer to and scroll down the
history timeline to '1857'. Later the phrase was frequently used in
mystery novels and became a cliché
An excerpt form the Novel Manor House explains
"Then you read a spooky (because it relates so directly to your
situation) sidebar about butlers down through the ages. Says that most
of today's nobility are descended from servants, and vice versa.
Faithful servants have been known to inherit immense wealth and
property from their deceased masters, particularly in cases where
there were no living heirs. Sometimes only one very distant relative
stands between them and a fortune. That's one basis for "the butler
did it" cliché in murder mysteries. At the same time, hereditary peers
have been known to fall on hard times, sell off their titles, and then
end up working as servants--anything to remain affiliated with a noble
house. It's a dynamic world, always has been, with occasional
wholesale reversals of fortunes and roles."
(Third Section separated by *****).

SO WHAT IS THE PROOF. Its simple, The earliest novel that contains the
phrase is "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" where you will find the mention
of "the butler did it" many a times. There are various stage plays
based on the novel where the actors pronounce the phrase. SOME PEOPLE

Someone else has also posted this question on (2nd

Search Strategy:
Origin AND "the butler did it"
Origin of phrase AND "the butler did it"
Useful Search Terms
"the butler did it" AND phrase
quotation AND "the butler did it"

Hope the answer will help you with your research. Please clarify if
you have any further questions. I will be glad to share more
information. Thanks very much.


Request for Answer Clarification by quoteman-ga on 23 Feb 2003 18:04 PST
I received a message from Google Answers saying that my question had
been answered, referring to your response purporting to have found
that "the butler did it" originated in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 
But the web site you got this from is OBVIOUSLY A JOKE.  Jeez.  Now I
have to request a refund?!?

Sorry if I'm being too harsh, but you can understand my frustration.

Clarification of Answer by leader-ga on 23 Feb 2003 18:52 PST

First of all sorry for the mishap. You clarified in a very kind tone.
You really deserve a refund BUT please allow me another oppertunity as
I have come across something interseting and it is not from any 'Joke'
website. I will answer very shortly. As I have frustrated you, you are
most welcome to seek refund even after my second response because it
might not be the perfect answer (also I think it will be quiet
reasonable). Thanks again and sorry for the misadventure.

Clarification of Answer by leader-ga on 23 Feb 2003 19:55 PST
Hello Again:

I did research on the phrase and came out with something of interest.
First let me answer the question and than I will explain why I was
confused and why did I quote the reference.

According to the most mystery novel fans, the originator of the phrase
"the butler did it" is Mary Roberts Rinehart. She first used the
phrase in her plays 'The Bat' which were base on the novel "The
Circular staircase". To verify this please visit the following
authentic websites:
(Please read the fifth and last Para of her biography)
(Please read the famous mystery writer section of her bio)
(please Read the first lines)
(Please scroll down to read a short bio of the author)
(Please see Q 12)
(Look for the author's name at 'people on August 12:birth

Now, allow me to clarify my previous answer. There are few people who
believe that the phrase might have originated earlier.
(please see the answer for Butler do it better)

I myself believe that there might be an earlier source. BECAUSE during
my research, I came across many incidents in which there was a mention
of Charles dickens and the phrase "the butler did it". Although I am
unable to verify if there is a connection to it and I am still working
on the mystery to locate the earlier origin (if there is any). NOW WHY

I WAS MISGUIDED because the phrase "the butler did it" and the phrase
"whodunit" might be very closely related. It might be that the
origination of whodunit dates back to Charles Dickens who wrote a
novel "The mystery of Edmund Drood" to succeed his friend Wilkie
Collins but died earlier and than the publisher completed the novel
(as stated in my earlier question). SO the mystery remains "whodunit".
Collins, Dickens or the publisher Wobey. BUT I am still trying to
connect the loose ends and see if it was the book where it was first
mentioned or somewhere else.

Hope this will help. I am trying my best to do further research and as
soon as I find anything, I will post it here. By the way, if you are
not still satisfied, please ask for a refund as it is your money and
my fault.

Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: lisarea-ga on 13 Jul 2002 23:17 PDT
Frequently, phrases like this originated as hearsay. 

My suspicion is that the phrase did originally come about as a
retelling of some plot point in one of the Mary Roberts Rinehart books
you were referred to.

Compare this to other archetypal phrases, such as "Play it again,
Sam," and "Come. Let me take you to the Casbah," of which are commonly
associated with 'Casablanca' and 'Algiers,' but were not actual

The origins of our language, idiom, and common knowledge are all too
often obscured, but it's likely that the original usage was either
word of mouth or something so temporal as to be all but lost (as in a
newspaper review or a brief mention in a periodical).
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: justaskscott-ga on 15 Jul 2002 17:37 PDT
I found nothing resembling "The butler did it" in the last few
chapters of The Door or the last act of the stage version of The Bat. 
Perhaps I missed it, or perhaps it's in another part, but my feeling
is that it's not there.

I don't think that we should give up on Rinehart just yet.  But for
the moment, I'm stumped.

There have been so many discussions of this same question in
newsgroups, and yet I have seen no answers.  The only attributions are
to Rinehart, and yet nothing I've seen has pointed to a specific
portion of a specific work.

This is truly a mystery!
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: rebeccam-ga on 16 Jul 2002 09:21 PDT
I am intrigued by the question, and will keep looking, but FYI, I've
found an article in the BBC News called "The 60 Best One-liners"
(10/30/98) that includes "The butler did it - origin unknown."

Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: rebeccam-ga on 16 Jul 2002 09:34 PDT
I found the following in an online excerpt from the Oxford English
Dictionary of Modern Quotations:

"The butler did it!
    In Nigel Rees Sayings of the Century (1984) p. 45 (as a solution
    detective stories. Rees cannot trace the origin of the phrase, but
    quotes a correspondent who recalls hearing it at a cinema circa


I'll keep looking!
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: starrebekah-ga on 16 Jul 2002 20:23 PDT
If you look up the origin of the phrase in a phrase dictionary, it
tells you that it came to be "a cliche because of the supposed high
proportion of low grade detective fiction where this was the actual

The link is

Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: siliconsamurai-ga on 18 Jul 2002 17:03 PDT
I found the Nigel Rees notation in the ODMQ also which is online
(although I don't know if it's a legal copy) at:

But I am highly suspicious of it since I don't see how anyone could
have "heard" dialog in a movie of that date.  I know there were a few
experiments but the Rees' citation is more than a decade before the
Jazz Singer and six years before the invention of the Tri Ergon

However, pre 1938 - I'm fairly certain I've heard this exact phrase in
a well-known detective movie from the 30's, I'll check my video
library.  It wouldn't necessarily be the first instance but would it
fit your question since it would also exist in the script?

If it's the story I think it is there isn't actually a book but this
might be the actual origin since a lot of people would have seen the
movie and picked up the phrase.
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: justaskscott-ga on 18 Jul 2002 18:49 PDT
With respect to siliconsamurai's perfectly sensible comment, I can
provide some clarification.  I don't have the citation at the moment,
but I read in one of Nigel Rees's quotation dictionaries that a
correspondent had reported that in 1916, a member of the audience in a
cinema exclaimed at the end of the film something to the effect that
he knew the butler did it.  (Rees does not provide, and presumably
does not know, the name of the cinema, the film, or the member of the
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: siliconsamurai-ga on 19 Jul 2002 05:06 PDT
That's rather what I thought but I stopped checking that reference
because it wouldn't fit the questioner's requirement anyway so I felt
it was a dead end.
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: bubbaisfat-ga on 21 Aug 2002 21:59 PDT
your answer should be here.

these people know everything.  "stumpers" newsgroup
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: justaskscott-ga on 01 Sep 2002 15:15 PDT
I figure that this question deserves a new comment, in order to give
new life to the search for an answer.

It occurred to me that "the butler did it" sounds like an answer to
the question "whodunit".  So then I wondered, when did "whodunit"
enter the language?  According to the OED News, the first recorded use
of "whodunit" was by George S. Kaufman in 1925/1930.  (I don't know
what OED means by "1925/1930".)

"Oxford English Dictionary News: January 1997" (scroll about 2/3 of
the way down the page)
Oxford English Dictionary (OED Online)

I have seen no indication that Kaufman also originated "The butler did
it", and I doubt that he did (or else we would have found that out by

But the timing is interesting; 1930 is also the year that the butler
did do it in Rinehart's "The Door".  Perhaps some wag, in response to
the question "whodunit" (or "who done it"), said "the butler did it",
prior to 1938.  The difficulty is figuring out ... whodunit!
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: eiffel-ga on 02 Sep 2002 14:24 PDT
1930 was also the year that Agatha Christie's first original play,
Black Coffee, was produced.

"...Locking everyone in the library, Sir Claud switches off the lights
to allow the thief to replace the formula on the table, no questions
asked. When the lights come on, he is dead..."

I can just imagine, as the lights come on, members of the audience
shouting things like "the butler did it!".

Can anyone confirm that the phrase is not in fact present in that
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: eiffel-ga on 02 Sep 2002 14:52 PDT
This question has been occupying the readers of "Quote Unquote" for
several years now, without solution:
Subject: Re: Origin of "The Butler Did It"
From: justaskscott-ga on 22 Mar 2003 08:21 PST
I'm sorry to contradict leader-ga, but the answer that Mary Roberts
Rinehart originated the phrase is apparently incorrect.

Comments by lisarea-ga and myself, several months ago, indicated the
possibility that Rinehart wrote this phrase.  But no one, including
leader-ga, has actually found a citation for this supposed quotation.

If Rinehart were the answer, then Nigel Rees or Quote-Unquote would
have surely tracked down the answer by now.  They have not, so I
believe that searching for a bona fide use of this phrase by Rinehart
is a wild-goose chase.

Leader-ga has cited several examples of the belief that Rinehart wrote
this phrase.  But a belief repeated many times, without hard evidence,
is still just a belief, and not an answer.

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