Why did the Mutoscope, an early ancestor of motion pictures, come to be known as the “What The Butler Saw” machine? The titillating title was inspired by a salacious Victorian Era scandal involving Gertrude Elizabeth Blood, Lord Colin Campbell and a nasty divorce in British Courts in 1886. And of course, the public mud slinging would have been nothing without the butler and what he claimed he saw through their keyhole.
Herman Casler patented the Mutoscope in 1894. His simple device worked on the principle of ‘flip books” that contained multiple individual images in sequence. A “show reel” typically held 850 images. Each image was a silver-based photographic print attached to a circular core. Assembled, they looked much like a Rolodex. (For those of you who never saw a Rolodex, it was the physical device that was replaced by the “contacts” button on your cell phone.) When the device ‘flipped’ through the sequential images, they appeared to move.
The Mutoscope did not project on a screen. Instead, it was viewed by one person at a time. The audience of one stood at the machine, cranked the handle and looked through the lens to watch the show. People were hungry for emerging technologies and new ways of delivering entertainment in the Victorian Era. They embraced the Mutocsope and similar devices that soon gave birth to all types of short “shows.” Most popular of these were the “peep shows” that can still be seen in arcades and on many seaside piers, even today.
When Herman Casler needed a camera to produce images for his new device, he turned to his friend W.K.L Dickson who was unhappy at the Edison Company. Together, they and several others formed the American Mutoscope Company, which soon dominated the market.
The Mutoscope was similar to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope mentioned in “Did Edison Post The First Cats Gone Bad Video?” As with the Mutoscope, individual viewers looked into the peephole window at the top of the device to see a film. It was not a movie projector, but it was an early version that introduced the concept of movies by creating the illusion of movement with sequential images. Kinetoscope parlors sprang up across the country, but the cheaper, easier Mutoscope won market share.
What the Butler Saw was a popular Mutoscope title in the early 1900s. It was also an early example of erotica entertainment. It featured a butler looking through the keyhole at his boss who was stepping out of her bloomers. The show became so popular that the Mutoscope came to be known as the “What The Butler Saw” device.
The idea was literally ripped from the pages of British newspapers where a lurid divorce trial played out in 1886. Lord Colin Campbell was a wealthy politician and brother-in-law of Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter. After a whirlwind courtship and extended engagement due to his illness, he married Gertrude Elizabeth Blood. Blood was the daughter of an Irish family who could not give her a dowry, but wanted to see their daughter launched into an elevated social circle.
The marriage was a short one. When Blood realized that her new husband had knowingly given her syphilis, she left him. In 1886, she sued for divorce. Out of revenge, Lord Colin countersued for his own divorce, naming four men with whom he claimed she had taken as lovers. The trial played out over 18 raucous days. Spectators clamored to see the proceedings and newspapers reported the outrageous details.
Elizabeth Blood’s alleged lovers ranged from Winston Churchill’s uncle to the head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Two of the butlers from the Campbell’s household, Albert De Roche and James O’Neill were called to testify. The Butler O’Neill claimed that he saw Lady Cambell in many compromising positions through the keyhole of their dining room at 79 Cadogan Place in London.
Because the trial hinged on O’Neill’s testimony, the entire jury was taken to the home. Each juror was asked to look through the keyhole to determine if the butler could possibly have seen what he claimed he saw.
Both divorce petitions were ultimately denied, but the “What the Butler Saw Machine” was born.
As a side note, Frank Harris, editor of the Evening News, doubled his paper’s readership by printing word-for-word testimony from the witness stands and was promptly fired and then indicted for libel.
The scandal was one of the worst any of London’s elite could remember. As a result, Gertrude Elizabeth Blood became a darling among artists and writers and intellectuals including Henry James, the artist Whistler, and the Burne-Jones’s. She particularly enamored George Bernard Shaw.
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