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.

Does Pushing the Button at a Crosswalk Actually Do Anything?

Pressing this crosswalk button may or may not do something.
Pressing this crosswalk button may or may not do something.
David Tran/iStock via Getty Images

Since crosswalk signals rarely seem to give you the green light (or more accurately, the white, human-shaped light) right after you press the button, you may find yourself wondering if those buttons actually work. The potentially exasperating answer is this: It depends.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that crosswalk buttons aren’t designed to have an immediate effect; they’re just supposed to tell the system that a person is waiting to cross. As CityLab explained, some systems won’t ever give pedestrians the crossing signal unless someone has pressed the button, while others are programmed to shorten the wait time for walkers when the button has been pressed. No matter what, the system still has to cycle through its other phases to give cars enough time to pass through the intersection, so you’ll probably still have to stand there for a moment.

During busy traffic times or under other extenuating circumstances, however, cities can switch the system to what’s known as “recall mode,” when pedestrian crossings are part of the cycle already and pressing the button quite literally changes nothing. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if a particular button is in recall mode, short of calling your city officials and asking an expert to come inspect it.

But if you feel like a button isn’t doing anything, there’s a pretty good chance it’s been permanently deactivated. As congestion has increased and the systems to manage it have become more advanced over the years, cities have moved away from using crosswalk buttons at all. In 2018, for example, CNN reported that only around 100 of New York City’s 1000 buttons were still functioning. Since actually removing the buttons from crosswalks would be a costly endeavor, cities have opted to leave them intact, just waiting to be pummeled by impatient pedestrians who don’t know any better.

What about 'close door' buttons on elevators, you ask? That depends, too.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For 2020, that means February 17 through March 10; June 18 through July 12; and October 14 through November 3. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER