"The butler did it” is a clichéd solution to a murder mystery novel or play. The saying has long been associated with American author Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958); her novel The Door did have the butler commit the murder, although the phrase does not appear in the book and the saying had been cited in print before 1930.
The saying appears to have started in the United Kingdom, not the United States. “His ex-butler did it!” was cited in Jiminy (1922) by Gilbert Wolf Gabriel and “I think the butler did it” was cited in a poem published in the Manchester Guardian in 1928. A 1933 book wrote about “British mystery thrillers of ‘the butler did it’ type.” The saying wasn’t used at this time in British plays; the online database for The Stage (1880-2007) doesn’t show a single citation of “the butler did it” before 1950. English humorist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) published The Butler Did It in 1957.
Wikipedia: Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876-September 22, 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie’s. She is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it”, although she did not actually use the phrase. She is considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing. She also created a costumed supercriminal called “the Bat”, who was cited by Bob Kane as one of the inspirations for his “Batman.”
The phrase “The butler did it”, which has become a cliché, came from Rinehart’s novel The Door, in which the butler actually did do it, although that exact phrase does not appear in the work. Tim Kelly adapted Rinehart’s play into a musical, The Butler Did It, Singing. This play includes five lead female roles and five lead male roles.
By Gilbert Wolf Gabriel
New York, NY: George H. Doran Company
“He knows nothing “ gasped Jiminy.
“His ex-butler did it!”
26 October 1929, Charleston (WV) Daily Mail, “Everyday Questions” answered by Dr. S. Parker Cadman, pg. 5, col. 4:
I think the butler did it, but ‘twere wiser to acquire
A few more stirring details by this well-appointed fire.
( A poem originally written by “Lucio” in The Manchester Guardian, December 6, 1928, page A11—ed.)
Bring the Monkey
By Miles Franklin
Sydney: Endeavour Press
At the same time, their author can offer a satirical version, with strong feminist overtones, of the conventions of British country house comedies and of British mystery thrillers of “the butler did it” type.
“I GUESSED THE BUTLER DID IT.”
3 June 1952, Rockford (IL) Register-Republic, “Laugh Time” comic strip by Frank Ridgeway, pg. 8, col. 6:
(Two youngsters are talking in the audience—ed.)
“Let’s leave—we know the butler did it!”
OCLC WorldCat record
The butler did it.
Author: P G Wodehouse
Publisher: New York, Simon and Schuster, 1957.
Edition/Format: Book : Fiction : English
The Straight Dope
In whodunits, “the butler did it.” Who did it first?
September 26, 2003
As I say, Rinehart was not the first to turn suspicion on the servant class in her detective fiction. One of the earliest was the writer who largely created the genre, Arthur Conan Doyle. In “The Musgrave Ritual,” from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893), the butler Brunton, though not the central bad guy, is found dead beside the chest that had contained the Musgrave family treasure — “the butler, guilty of betrayal and theft, paid with his life for his perfidy,” as the Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing puts it. And in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), suspicion initially falls on Ackroyd’s butler Parker, owing to his criminal past.
I can find only one detective story prior to Rinehart’s in which a butler commits the pivotal crime, “The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner” by Herbert Jenkins (1921).
Yale Alumni Magazine
You can quote them
By Fred Shapiro | Jan/Feb 2008
Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.
“The butler did it”
The quintessential solution of all mystery stories is usually traced to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1930 novel, The Door. The phrase does not appear in that book, but the guilty party is the butler. In researching the YBQ, the earliest occurrence I found (Kansas City Star, March 30, 1930) referred to Rinehart.
But I have now found a usage in the Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail of October 26, 1929 - too early for The Door to be the model. And a comic novel of 1922 suggests the phrase was already a cliche, and a joke, by then. In Jiminy, a Gothic spoof by Gilbert Wolf Gabriel, the title character and her husband write their landlord to ask about the decor of a cottage. He replies that a former employee handled it. “‘He knows nothing -,’ gasped Jiminy,” and her husband says, “His ex-butler did it!”