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The Earl of Cork's Enigma

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Earl of Cork's Enigma

I recently found the bits and pieces of my 1980s-era GAMES magazine collection. In what little remains was this "enigma" from a 40-year-old magazine, and it struck me as something readers might enjoy or want to take a crack at solving.

Fire and Water mixed together,
Add to this some salt and tin;
Tell me, ladies, tell me whether
In this mixture there is sin?

— The Earl of Cork's Enigma: Can you solve this riddle? The answer died with the 19th-century earl who created it. We know of no solution [1].


First, the Earl of Cork is a title in the Peerage of Ireland, created in 1620 for Richard Boyle, 1st Baron Boyle. If we are to believe the magazine then there were only two Earls during the 19th Century [2]:

  • Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl of Cork (1798–1856)
  • Richard Edmund St Lawrence Boyle, 9th Earl of Cork (1856–1904)

Neither Wikipedia article for these two earls mentions a riddle or attributes the poem to him. In rereading this now, I wonder if one of the 19th Century earls only made an ancestor's riddle public. That is, an earlier earl came up with the puzzle. We'll hold onto that idea for later. 

We found one other reference to the riddle in an 1823 edition of New York's The Minerva:

The following enigma was furnished by the Earl of Cork who stated that he would answer it at the expiring of a year if no one before that gave a solution. He died before the year elapsed. We shall be obliged if some of our readers will solve the question. [3]

Neither the 8th or 9th earl died "before [a] year elapsed"; however, the 8th Earl did inherit the title in 1798. That’s almost 1800.  So who was the 7th Earl?

Edmund Boyle (1764–1798) -- but no riddle is attributed to him, either. The poem is not attributed to any of the Earls, though John Boyle, 5th Earl (1753–1762), was a writer and a friend of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson [5]. So he has that going for him.


Let’s turn our attention to the riddle itself. The only other place online discussing the poem is the message boards of the StraightDope website.  In 2000, user John_Corrado provided a fairly straightforward answer:

Take some of salt (the letter ‘s’)
take some of tin (the letters ‘i’ and ‘n’)
and in this mixture, there is…

Wait, is that it?  It seems so pedestrian.  In 2011, user Septimus shared his thoughts and impressive research:

Riddles intrigue me. With Google I find that this predates Games magazine by at least two centuries, appearing in the 1756(?) volume of The Connoisseur [5]. The entry (by Michael Krawbidge, a pen-name for the [5th] Earl of Cork ? [4]) implies it’s an “ingenuous” puzzle with a prize, making me doubt that simple S+IN is the intended answer. The entry implies that the 1757(?) Connoisseur will have the solution, but I’m not sure that volume ever existed, let alone is online.

Krawbidge mentioning the “three Graces” seems to refer to the Pandora myth, which does connect to “Fire and water mixed together” and “sin,” but leaves “some salt and tin” unexplained.

In the Connoisseur, Krawbidge prefaces his enigma with a letter addressed to the pseudonymous Mr Town (the editor or some authority within the newspaper), and praises the "riddles and unriddles" written by women in the Lady's Diary [sic] publication:

"...therefore I must humbly offer by the vehicle of your paper, Mr Town, a small riddle invented with much pains and thought by myself to the solution of those three ingenious spinsters Miss Polly Walker, Miss Grace Tetlow, and Miss Ann Rickaby to appear in the Lady's Diary [sic] of 1757. ... The solution itself, if not truly explained by the Three Graces to whom I now address it, shall appear by your permission in the first CONNOISSEUR after next New Year's Day." [5]

The Connoisseur was a London weekly 18th Century newspaper which appears to have existed between Jan. 1754 and Sept. 30, 1756 [6]. While it read as if the author would provide an answer in the  first 1757 edition, we see there were no editions after Sept.

The Ladies' Diary: or, Woman's Almanack appeared annually in London from 1704 to 1841:

The subtitle indicated its serious purpose: "Containing New Improvements in ARTS and SCIENCES, and many entertaining PARTICULARS: Designed for the USE AND DIVERSION OF THE FAIR SEX." These included riddles (called enigmas), rebuses, charades, scientific queries, and mathematical questions. A typical volume in the series included answers submitted by readers to problems posed the previous year and a set of new problems, nearly all proposed by readers. Both puzzle and answer (revealed the following year) were often in verse [7].
Septimus believes Krawbidge's reference to the Three Graces [5] refers to the mythological goddesses of beauty.  Instead, I interpret the epithet to mean the three women in the letter - Rickaby, Tetlow, and Walker - were authors (celebrated or otherwise) of riddles in the Ladies' Diary and "The Earl of Cork's Enigma" was Krawbidge's attempt to riddle the riddlers, so to speak, or was perhaps even a parody. Was the answer to the Earl's enigma supposed to be written in rhyming verse, too?

For what it's worth, Google Books tells me the Ladies Diary (or, Woman's Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord, 1757. Being the First After Bissextile, Or Leap-year. Containing New Improvements in Arts and Sciences, and Many Entertaining Particulars ; Adapted for the Use and Diversion of the Fair-sex. Being the Fifty-fourth Almanack Publish'd of this Kind) is not available for viewing online.  So what answers or further questions await in its pages are currently unknown.  And I'm okay with a dead end for now.


We mentioned the 7th, 8th and 9th Earls earlier, but if the enigma dates to the mid-1700s, then it easily predates those Earls.  Let's take a step back and figure out who Michael Krawbidge was.  As Septimus says, it's a pen-name.  But William Cushing wrote in 1885 that Krawbridge (note the change in spelling) is the pseudonym of (ugh) Richard Boyle, 4th Earl of Cork (1704–1753) [8]. But the 4th Earl died in Dec. 1753, so he didn't write to the Connoisseur in 1756 - meaning we're back to the 5th Earl as Septimus assumed in his comments. Unless, as I hinted earlier, one of the living Earls quoted something his own father or grandfather came up with.


So while we ponder the authorship, Septimus questioned whether the answer was as simple as taking letters from the two words and creating a third.  Why sin and not the letters left over: talt, the past participle form of tale, or speak, in Danish? The author penned the question in English, so an answer in French or Latin (or Dutch) seems unlikely.

What about element symbols?  NaCl Sn isn't much to go on, and you can't find anagrams with these letters. 

User hogarth flushed out an anwer using the entire poem:

fire + water = nothing
some salt + some tin = s + in
nothing + s + in = sin

Yes, the base elements of fire and water would neutralize each other, but wouldn't there also be smoke?  Does adding smoke to the equation give us any interesting anagrams?

  • Smoke + Na Cl + Sn
    • Monks cleans
    • Salmon necks


  • Smoke + Salt + Tin
    • Moleskin stat 
    • Moist anklets 
    • Sin talks to me


  • Fire + Water + Salt + Tin
    • Twitter flare a sin

Let us not be silly.


That's our authorship and answer research. Let us know where you first heard of this enigma – an 18th Century London newspaper, a 19th Century New York newspaper, a 20th Century magazine, or a 21st Century blog – and your ideas on how to resolve it.


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