Why Do We Say "The Butler Did It"?

iStock / mattjeacock
iStock / mattjeacock

Reader Chris wrote in wondering how “the butler did it” became a mystery fiction cliche and who the first guilty butler was. 

Two of the earliest examples of felonious butlers I can find are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual” from 1893 and Herbert Jenkins’ “The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner” from 1921. Conan Doyle’s butler isn’t the primary villain of the story, but does attempt to rob his employers and winds up dead for it. Jenkins made his butler the main bad guy and the murderer in the story. As far as I can tell, he was the first to do so, but it was another author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, who made it a detective story trope.

Rinehart was a successful and prolific author and playwright, sometimes regarded as the “American Agatha Christie.” One of her plays, The Bat, focused on a group of people being murdered one by one by the titular costumed killer, a character that helped inspired Bob Kane’s Batman.

In Rinehart’s 1930 novel The Door, the butler is the murderer, and while the novel is sometimes cited as the first appearance of the phrase “the butler did it,” it doesn’t appear in that book or any of her other works. While The Door was a hit for Rinehart and her sons, who released it through a publishing house they’d just started up, her pinning the crime on the butler has gone down in history as a serious misstep. Just two years earlier, critic and detective novelist SS Van Dine laid down a set of rules for crime and mystery writers in an essay fittingly titled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” Among his advice was, “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.”

That The Door was a commercial success while flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing made it an easy target for jokes. Stories and books like “What, No Butler?” and The Butler Did It soon turned murderous manservants into shorthand for a cheap ending.

Life Imitates Art

Years after Rinehart made the bad guy butler the butt of many jokes, she was almost killed by one of her own servants.

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.

He aimed at Rinehart from just a few feet away and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. Rinehart ran from the room and headed toward the servant’s wing, with the chef chasing after her and fumbling to fix his gun. Rinehart’s chauffeur tackled him to the ground while the housemaid disarmed him and tossed the gun outside.

While Rinehart called the police, the chef broke free from the chauffeur, grabbed two knives from the kitchen and started chasing Rinehart again. The gardener came in from the yard and helped the chauffeur wrestle the chef to the ground again, where they held him until the police arrived.

Unlike in her story, Rinehart’s real butler didn’t do much of anything. He ran from the house as soon as the commotion started and hitched a ride into town.

Why Are Barns Often Painted Red?

iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas
iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas

Beginning with the earliest American settlements and continuing into the 18th century, most barns weren't painted at all. Early American barn builders took sun exposure, temperature, moisture, wind, and water drainage patterns into account when placing and building barns, and they seasoned the wood (that is, they reduced the moisture content) accordingly. The right type of wood in the right environment held up fine without any paint.

Toward the end of the 1700s, these old-school methods of barn planning and building fell by the wayside. People sought a quicker, easier fix for preserving their barns—a way to coat and seal the wood to protect it from sunlight and moisture damage. Farmers began making their own coating from a mix of linseed oil (a tawny oil derived from the flax seeds), milk, and lime. It dried quickly and lasted a long time, but it didn't really protect the wood from mold and wasn't quite like the "barn red"we know today—it was more of a burnt orange, really.

Turning Red

The problem with mold is that it decays wood and, in large quantities, can pose health risks to people and animals. Rust, it turns out, kills mold and other types of fungi, so farmers began adding ferrous oxide (rusted iron) to the linseed oil mix. A little bit of rust went a long way in protecting the wood, and it gave the barn a nice red hue.

By the late 19th century, mass-produced paints made with chemical pigments became available to most people. Red was the least expensive color, so it remained the most popular for use on barns, except for a brief period when whitewash became cheaper and white barns started popping up. (White barns were also common on dairy farms in some parts of Pennsylvania, central Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley, possibly because of the color's association with cleanliness and purity.)

Throughout Appalachia (a historically poorer region), many barns went unpainted for lack of money. In the tobacco regions of Kentucky and North Carolina, black and brown barns were the norm, since the dark colors helped heat the barn and cure tobacco.

Today, many barns are still painted the color traditionally used in a given region, with red still dominating the Northeast and Midwest.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2019.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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