“The butler did it!” has become a mystery novel cliché, a tired trope that broadcasts the unoriginality of any author pointing to the houseman as the villain. However, real life has no such restrictions on culpability for underhanded behavior. History, both recent and otherwise, offers numerous examples of crimes and betrayals committed by the trusted household help – instances where the butler really did, in fact, do it.
10. Guilty of Assault, but Makes a Delicious Breakfast
After a stint as an under butler at Buckingham Palace in the late 1990s, 34-year old Gary Lindley had settled into a quiet country life in Barnstaple, Devon, where he worked as butler to the Earl and Countess of Arran at Castle Hill Estate. However, after being kicked out of a pub in late 2008, Lindley attacked a 50-year old man. After admitting to causing bodily harm, Lindley was ordered by Barnstaple Magistrates’ Court to pay 150 pounds to his victim, observe a three-month 9:00 p.m.-to-9:00 a.m. curfew, and to wear an electronic monitoring tag.
However, this punishment didn’t sit well with Lindley’s boss, Lady Eleanor, a countess who is the 16th generation of her family to inhabit the 5,000-acre Castle Hill Estate. Lindley successfully petitioned the court to remove the monitoring tag on the frequent occasions he was required to stay overnight to better serve the Earl and Countess. After the verdict the countess pronounced that, “He is the most wonderful butler and these things can happen to anyone,” and added that, “Gary cooks the best breakfasts and the best scrambled eggs.”
9. From Convicted Murder to Governor’s Butler
Harrison Cage is the rare case of someone who did it and then became a butler, in this case serving Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. In 1993, a jury unanimously convicted Cage of second-degree murder in the stabbing of his nephew, Tyrone Clark. While serving his life sentence for the crime, Cage came to be considered trustworthy enough for special privileges, including work detail outside of the prison walls. In Cage’s case, his work included serving as Bobby Jindal’s personal butler at the Governor’s mansion and came with upgraded overnight digs at the State Police Barracks. While allowing convicted murderers in close proximity to high-level elected officials may seem like a recipe for disaster, Louisiana is far from the only state to employ the “trusty” system. In 2012, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour came under fire for pardoning five such inmates who had worked at the Governor’s residence – including four convicted murderers – on his way out of office.
In his eight years at the Governor’s mansion, Cage has been a dedicated employee who is the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night, based on accounts from mansion coordinator Irene Shepherd, who testified at a May, 2015 hearing where Cage requested a reduced sentence.
8. Royal Butler, With a Side of Pedophilia
Paul Kidd served as royal butler and then senior footman to Queen Elizabeth from 1977 to 1984. While his public persona was “charming,” Kidd had a much darker side as a serial sexual abuser of children. Described by a source as a “brilliant groomer,” Kidd captured his victims’ attention with grandiose stories of royal connections. One victim was even brought to a tea party with the Queen Mother. In the end, Kidd was brought down by his desire for the limelight.
After one of his three victims read a newspaper interview given by Kidd on the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, the victim went to police, who uncovered evidence of Kidd’s string of crimes against children, including over 18,000 images of child pornography. Facing almost 30 charges, Kidd pleaded guilty to six counts of indecent assault, five counts of sexual activity with a child, and one count of causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity, along with 11 counts of making indecent images of a child and two counts of possessing indecent images of children. Ordering a sentence of at least six years, Judge Mushtaq Khokar told Kidd, “I regard you as someone who is dangerous and presents a risk to all the young people you may come across.”
7. Model Servant by Day, Jewel Thief by Night
When Claude Heritier joined the household staff of the famous Morgan family’s house in New York City in 1907, they were thrilled to land a second butler with such an impressive pedigree and references. Heritier came highly recommended from his previous employer, and in the Morgan household he was noted for his “unerring” memory, always able to recall where even trivial items were located. In 1908, his remarkable sense of recall also apparently served him well in helping him to find and steal roughly $8,000 worth of diamonds and jewelry from the Morgan household.
Much of the haul came from the “inadvertently” unlocked safe of David P. Morgan’s widowed mother, who lived on the second floor. Heritier had the good sense to cut the phone lines on his way out, to quickly dump costume jewelry that was mixed in with the heirlooms, and to hop a steamer ship to Belgium. However, his accomplice was soon picked up in Liverpool, England, and two days later, the police found Heritier, along with two of the stolen necklaces, holed up in London. He promptly confessed to his role in the theft, detailing how he had sold of several of the purloined jewels.
6. Hiding the “Little Black Book” from Investigators
Jeffrey Epstein may be the world’s richest convicted sex offender. The multimillionaire made his fortune as a money manager and spent it lavishly, purchasing several properties including a private island in the Caribbean. He hobnobbed with high-profile friends and contacts in science, politics, and the British Royal family. His hedonistic lifestyle included paying for numerous inappropriate massages, several of them from underage girls. Attempts to prosecute Epstein for his sex crimes in 2007 ended in a deal with prosecutors in which Epstein agreed to plead guilty to two lesser charges of soliciting underage prostitutes, earning him an 18-month jail sentence.
Two years later, Alfredo Rodriguez, Epstein’s former butler, would receive an identical sentence. His crime? Refusing to turn over a “little black book” detailing his ex-boss’ sexual escapades to investigators and then trying to sell it to lawyers representing women in civil lawsuits against Epstein. Rodriguez pled guilty to obstruction of justice and, while US District Judge Kenneth Marra acknowledged the incongruity of the identical 18-month sentences for both men, he pointed out that, “If this book had been produced when requested, Mr. Epstein’s sentence may have been significantly different.”
5. The Art Thief Butler Who May Not Have Acted Alone
Oil tycoon Howard Keck and his wife Elizabeth had filled their capacious Bel-Air mansion, La Lanterne, with expensive art and antiques, as well as full-time house staff to run the large estate. In early 1987, two long-time employees, Roy Gunnar Donell, who had worked as the family’s butler for 11 years, and his wife Christina, the cook, gave their notice, ostensibly because Roy required surgery. They waved off Mrs. Keck’s offers that she would pay for the surgery if they stayed.
A few months later, Elizabeth noticed that Fria Luften, a valuable impressionist painting by Swedish artist Anders Zorn, looked a bit off. Upon closer examination, she realized that the painting wasn’t a painting at all, but rather a photograph printed on canvas. After determining it was an inside job, detectives learned Donell had auctioned the painting off in Sweden.
Confronted with overwhelming evidence, Roy admitted he had taken and sold the paintings, but he asserted an unusual defense. He claimed that Elizabeth, who was embroiled in nasty divorce proceedings with Howard, had asked him to surreptitiously sell the paintings for her so that she could pay her lawyers. Elizabeth angrily denied these accusations, but Donell was aided by Howard’s testimony, in which he said of his estranged wife “I don’t think she is a truthful person.” Though Donell admitted to replacing the paintings with photos and sneaking them to Sweden to sell, he was acquitted by the jury of larceny charges.
4. Cooking, Cleaning, and Extorting
When socialite Anne Bass fired her butler Emanuel Nicolescu in May, 2006 after discovering he’d taken one of her cars for his personal use and then crashed it, she thought she had seen the last of him. Unfortunately, her next encounter with her ex-employee would be even more unpleasant. In April of 2007, masked men invaded her western Connecticut estate, tied up her and her companion, and injected them with what the assailants claimed was a deadly virus.
The intruders said they could supply an antidote in exchange for $8.5 million, but eventually fled without receiving any money. The injected substance proved to be harmless. Nicolescu, who claimed to be innocent, was the only member of the group (believed by authorities to be comprised at least 4 men) apprehended. At least two of them are believed to have fled to Romania, Nicolescu’s native country. Nicolescu wasn’t so lucky: calling the extortion plot a “horrific crime,” U.S District Judge Mark Kravitz imposed a 20 year prison sentence on the former butler.
3. Those Secrets Aren’t Safe from Betrayal
Paul Burrell had a long history with the British Royal family, having started work as a footman for the Queen in 1976. In 1984, he married Maria Cosgrove, who was working for Prince Philip as a maid. In 1987, he began working as personal butler to Princess Diana, a role that would come to define his life and one he would occupy until Diana’s untimely death in a car accident in 1997. Burrell was considered a trusted and integral part of the household, often traveling with the princess, and after Diana’s death, the Queen awarded him the Royal Victorian Medal for his service to the royal family and the Princess of Wales.
While he initially pledged to keep the secrets he had learned through his tenure as Diana’s butler, Burrell ultimately wrote two tell-all books detailing stories and secrets from his royal service. Burrell was tried for stealing some of Diana’s personal effects after her death, but charges were dropped and the trial ended after revelations from the Queen that the butler had told her that he was removing some items for safekeeping. There was also some suggestion of perjury during an inquest into Diana’s death, but the ex-butler has never been convicted of any crime. However, when Burrell’s first tell-all book was announced, Princes William and Harry made their disappointment public, noting, “We cannot believe that Paul, who was entrusted with so much, could abuse his position in such a cold and overt betrayal.”
2. Thou Shalt Not Steal Papal Correspondence
In 2012, the Vatican was rocked by the “Vatileaks” scandal, in which confidential letters between Pope Benedict XVI and his personal secretary were revealed in the Italian press and published in a bestselling book, His Holiness, by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi. While the public was captivated by the peek inside the secretive inner workings, political rivalries, and corruption of the Vatican, the Vatican was fixated on another question: who leaked the documents? The answer to that question would soon become apparent, and so very, very trite.
As the butler to Pope Benedict, Paolo Gabriele was responsible for preparing breakfast and clothing, accompanying the Pope on his day-to-day activities. However, Gabriele became increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as corruption within the Church hierarchy and the efforts to hide this threat from Pope Benedict. Explaining his decision to try to capture the Pope’s attention by secretly taking Benedict’s personal correspondence and turning it over to the press, Gabriele said, “Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church, I…could no longer control myself.” Two weeks after the book was published, Gabriele was arrested when thousands of photocopied documents were found in his Vatican City home. Gabriele pled not guilty, while acknowledging that he had betrayed the Pope’s trust, and argued that he had acted for the good of the church. Gabriele was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison, though weeks after the sentence, Pope Benedict pardoned his former butler.
1. “The Monster Butler”
Archibald Hall has been called the “Monster Butler,” and considering he was suspected in five murders it’s a title that’s richly deserved. Born into poverty in Glasgow in 1924, he was in and out of prison throughout his life. He worked to lose his Scottish accent, learn the rules of etiquette, and become knowledgeable about antiques, transforming himself into “Roy Fontaine,” a butler to the British aristocracy.
Perhaps Hall’s list of crimes would have stopped at his early string of thefts, but David Wright, an ex-lover who had been in prison with Hall, accepted a gamekeeper position at the estate where he was working. Wright quickly returned to his thieving ways, irritating Hall, who claimed he wanted to “go straight.” This argument escalated, with exposure of Hall’s true identity and criminal past a constant threat. Finally, while the pair were out hunting, Hall shot Wright and buried his body.
He quickly left his post and moved to London, where he secured a position as a butler for a wealthy older couple, Walter and Dorothy Scott-Elliot. Along with his accomplice Michael Kitto, he planned to rob his employers, but the two men killed the couple after Dorothy overheard their plot. A third, female accomplice dressed in the clothes of the late Mrs. Scott-Elliot and quickly emptied the couple’s bank accounts. When the former prostitute began drawing attention to herself with her penchant for wearing the fancy clothes she had stolen, Kitto and Hall added her to their body count. The two returned to Hall’s family home, but when Hall’s half-brother began asking too many questions, he too was murdered. Ultimately, the duo was caught in a hotel after the proprietor became suspicious and called police, who discovered Hall’s brother’s body in the trunk of their car. Hall was convicted of four of the murders and sentenced to life in prison, where he remained until his 2002 death.