The Dorabella Cipher is one of the most popular crypto mysteries in the world. 120 years after its creation still nobody has found the solution.

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Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the most popular British composer of his time. His most famous piece is named Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, also known as Land of Hope and Glory. Here’s a YouTube video of it:


The Dorabella cryptogram

Like many other musicians, Edward Elgar had an interest in cryptology. So, it comes as no surprise that he included a small cryptogram into a letter he wrote to his female friend Dora Penny on July 14, 1897. This cryptogram looked like this:


Considering that Dora Penny was an absolute laymen in terms of codebreaking, one could expect that these encrypted lines (today known as the “Dorabella cryptogram”) are easy to decipher. However, neither Penny herself nor anybody else ever found the solution of this challenge, though many have tried.

Due to the many successless deciphering efforts, the Dorabella cryptogram has become one of the most famous crypto mysteries in the world. It is contained in most unsolved ciphers lists, e.g. the one of Elonka Dunin and the one on Wikipedia.

In spite of its popularity, the Dorabella cryptogram is in my personal view not one of the top ten cipher challenges – there are more interesting ones. For this reason it is not mentioned in my book Nicht zu knacken, which covers the ten greatest unsolved crypto mysteries. However, I put the Dorabella cryptogram on position 26 of my top 50 list. It is also mentioned in my book Codeknacker gegen Codemacher. In addition, I created a Dorabella challenge for the crypto puzzle portal MysteryTwister C3 (it goes without saying that this challenge is still an unsolved one).

The best and most comprehensive treatise of the Dorabella cryptogram is available in Craig Bauer’s book Unsolved!.


Many tries, no solution

The Dorabella cryptogram consists of 87 characters spread over three lines. It appears to be made up from an alphabet of 24 symbols, each symbol consisting of one, two or three semicircles oriented in one of eight directions. A small dot appears after the fifth character on the third line. Here’s a transcription of the cryptogram:


Like other famous cryptograms (especially the Voynich Manuscript), the Dorabella cryptogram has been allegedly solved several times. For instance, musicologist and Shakespeare expert Eric Sams published the following interpretation in 1970 (the length of the cleartext is 109 letters, whereas the ciphertext contains only 87 or 88 characters; Sams claimed the surplus letters are implied by phonetic shorthand):

[alpha, beta, ie Greek letters or alphabet] BELOW: I OWN THE DARK MAKES

In my view this solution doesn’t make much sense. Several other solution descriptions have been handed in to the scientific magazine Cryptologia, but all were rejected.

Several authors suggested that the characters of the Dorabella cipher stand for musical notes instead of letters. However, this hypothesis hasn’t led to a solution so far, either.

If a reader has some new idea about this well-researched crypto mystery, please leave a comment.

Further reading: Has Gordon Rugg solved the mystery of the Voynich manuscript text? Part 1


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Kommentare (15)

  1. #1 TWO
    4. August 2017

    maybe dearest or dear reader could be a start

  2. #2 Hias
    4. August 2017

    Was mir auffällt ist, daß manche Zeichen nur anscheinend gleich sind.
    Während das vierte Zeichen z.B. “normal” geschrieben ist,scheint das letzte mit einer Drehung von 90 (?) Grad rechts geschrieben zu sein. Es wäre interessant zu wissen, was ein Graphologe zu dem Schriftbild sagt und ob ein Muster in einer möglichen Rotation der Symbole erkennbar ist. Hierzu noch ein paar Fragen:
    -Wurde diesem Hinweis schon nachgegangen, wenn ja mit welchem Ergebnis?
    -Weiß jemand ob eine “zentrale Datenbank” existiert, in der die schon (erfolglos) versuchten Lösungsansätze verzeichnet sind?

  3. #3 Thomas
    4. August 2017

    Nachdem nicht das ganze Alphabet zum Einsatz kommt würde ich auf eine Tonfolge und der Verwendung unterschiedlicher Oktaven schließen. Es ist eine Melodie für die Geliebte und kein Text. Versucht das mal.

  4. #4 Thomas
    4. August 2017

    23 years later Elgar played around with the same symbols in a notebook. Maybe the drawings indicate how he constructed the symbols.

  5. #5 Marc
    4. August 2017

    Das es nur 24 Symbole sind spricht nicht gegen einen Text. Er hat für I/J und U/V jeweils 1 Symbol verwendet, siehe Link von Thomas (#4)

  6. #7 Thomas Ernst
    5. August 2017

    While the theme of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” may or may not allude to another theme which has remained an enigma, a supposed cipher sprung off from the “Enigma Variations”, the so-called “Dorabella Cipher” is a fraud. A fraud in the double sense that it is not by Elgar, and that it does not constitute a cipher. It first appeared – literally – in 1937, appended to Dorabella Powell’s (formerly Dorabella Penny) printed “Edward Elgar: Memoirs of a Variation”. According to DP, the cipher card was slipped into a letter to her stepmother (p. [129]). Elgar depicted Dorabella and her slight stutter in Variation X of his “Enigma Variations”. She was one of 13 friends he depicted musically, # 14 being EE himself.
    The base of this supposed cipher alphabet is the letter E, or epsilon, written in semicircles, and, in addition to its full appearance, also augmented as well as diminished by one semicircle. Clockwise variations at angles of 45° yield a potential of 24 different symbols.
    The three lines of the supposed cipher contain respectively 29, 31 and 27 symbols, which makes for total of 87 symbols. The same symbols are also to be found in the “Marco” note – Marco was Elgars dog – as well as in the margin of programme notes to a Liszt concert (see below).
    Staying mindful of the original, one can transcribe a) the angle and b) the number of semicircles as 0-1, 0-2, 0-3, 45-1, 45-2, 45-3 etc. With a straight “E” as starting point, it makes sense to indicate this angle with “0” instead of “360”. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I found it useful to summarize the symbols as follows: angle in first position, amount of semicircles in second position, frequency of occurrence following after the “:”, numeric occurrence on either line 1, 2, or 3 following a “/”. A “=” after each symbol indicates its occurrence; the “Total” at the end of the line indicates the total amount of symbols with one, two or three semicircles at that angle. Uncertain angles are in square brackets. E. g. “180-3: 1/2, 20, 21; 3/20 = 4” means: at 180 degrees clockwise, the sign with 3 semicircles appears in line 1 in position (counted from left to right) 2, 20, 21, and in line 3 in position 20, which yields a total for this one sign. The “Total” at the end of “180” – 4 – is the total of all signs at this angle:

    • 0-1: 1/5; 3/26 = 2 | 0-2: 1/1 = 1 | 0-3: 1/[4], 8; 2/6, 9; 3/19, 24, 27 = 7 | Total of 10.
    • 45-1: 1/14; 2/[25]; 3/[7], [25] = 4 | 45-2: 1/3; 2/10, 13; 3/1, 6, 12 = 6 | 45-3: 1/11, 28; 2/19, 30 = 4 | Total of 14.
    • 90-1: 1/23, 27; 2/15; 3/10, 18, 21, 25 = 4 | 90-2: 1/6, 19; 2/4, 14, 21; 3/3, 14, 23 = 8 | 90-3: 1/16 = 1 | Total of 16.
    • 135-1: 1/9; 2/7, 27, 28 = 7 | 135-2: 2/8 = 1 | 135-3: – = 0 | Total of 5.
    • 180-1: –; 180-2: – | 180-3: 1/2, 20, 21; 3/20 = 4 | Total of 4.
    • 225-1: 1/13; 2/16, 24; 3/16 = 4 | 225-2: 1/12, 15, 17, 18, 22 = 5 | 225-3: 1/29; 2/23, 31; 3/2, 5, 11, 17, 22 = 8 | Total of 17.
    • 270-1: 1/7; 2/1, [3], 5, 17 = 5 | 270-2: 2/22; 3/4, 8, 15 = 4 | 270-3: 3/9 = 1 | Total of 10.
    • 315-1: 1/26; 2/26, 29 = 3 | 315-2: 1/10, 25 = 2 | 315-3: – | Total of 5.

    If you look at the distribution and amount of certain signs, it becomes apparent that neither can be dictated by an underlying monoalphabetic principle, but that their existence or avoidance is dictated graphologically: DP had difficulty writing at certain angles, independent of whether the sign had one, two, or three semicircles, 180 and 315 degrees being the most obvious. Distribution-wise, DP also has her preferences, to wit two semicircles at 90 degrees: four times in line 1, eight (!) times in line two, but once in line 3. Add the following to the distribution: typically, DP repeats a symbol after 7 or 8 different symbols. This is a rather amateurish way of faking a cipher: make as many symbols different from the previous, before repeating one. That is one of the reasons why no one as of yet has found suitable words without tuning the English language into gibberish. – The third, sagging line appears to have been added later, because it has a different symbol distribution from lines one and two. – Since the American music critic Irving Kolodin put the “Dorabella Cipher” into the lime light in the 1950s, there have been repeated suggestions that this “cipher” may contain music. Pray tell: how so???
    The “Dorabella Cipher” has only been known since DP had it printed in her “Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation”, 1937, “Appendix A” following p. 128. While Elgar’s date of 1897 looks authentic, it was topped with the cipher at a later date. In furniture lingo, this is called a “false marriage” – like when you have a 18th c’y shelf with 20th c’y legs.
    Why this charade? Elgar had died in February, 1934. In July, Richard Powell proposed “Auld Lang Syne” as the secret theme of the “Enigma Variations” (“Music & Letters”, XV, 203-208). This theory hasn’t held up; more importantly, though, is the beginning of an “appropriation” process. Powell’s wife Dora was the last survivor of the 13 friends depicted by Elgar in the “Enigma Variations”. Quoth Wiki about the Elgar Birthplace Museum: “The cottage was established as a museum in 1934, on Elgar’s death, by his daughter Carice Elgar Blake.” According to DP, it was not opened till 1938 (p. 127). Quoth DP: “To look round the various treasures collected there, so beautifully and lovingly arranged, takes one back vividly to the years of his greatest creative activity. One goes from room to room noticing and remembering one thing after another.” (p. 127)
    I have positively no doubt that DP created the “cipher” herself, and added the “Marco” and “Liszt” pieces either in the museum, while going “from room to room”, or she had them prepared as exhibits before the museum was opened. Musical-Grove Eric Sams, who fell harder for this forgery than anyone else, never listed the sources of these three documents. Let us briefly look at the “Marco” page (you can do so by googling Eric Sams’ articles). The “Marco” page does not pretend to contain a cipher. It pretends to list and play with several possibilities of how a cipher on the letter “E” and shifting angles could be devised. Elgar’s beloved spaniel Marco was born in 1924 (see his grave stone; Elgar also wrote a very moving poem about his animals), thus the “Marco”-page could not have been contrived before that date. Why would Elgar re-invent a cipher after 1924 when he – supposedly – had already used it in 1897? An additional, yet minor thing: why is the date of the “Dorabella Cipher” below and not above the text, as was EE’s custom?
    History and a bit of psychology: there are antecedents for DP’s appropriation of a famous figure whom she had known personally, and such an appropriation extending into “enhancing the truth”, to wit Bettina’s von Arnim famous “Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde” that Bettina published in 1835. The book was a literary success. When some of the original letters were published in 1929, it turned out that Bettina’s versions thereof were, to a large degree, rewritten, or made up altogether. Bettina knew Goethe and his mother since 1806, Frankfurt being their common ground. In 1811, a minor quarrel between Bettina and Goethe’s wife occurred: Christiane liked a painting, Bettina sneered at it, Christiane ripped Bettina’s glasses from her face. Upon which, memorably so, Bettina called Christiane “eine wahnsinnige Blutwurst” (an insane blood sausage). Besides her linguistic abilities, Bettina was widely gifted, in music (in 2011, she became a candidate for Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved”) and art; near the end of her memorable life, she engaged in social causes. She was no “cook”. For whatever need, however, she suggested to herself and others her deep emotional and intellectual bonds to famous people, and publicized these bonds after the famous person’s death (e. g. after the suicide of her friend Günderode). Perhaps a borderline-personality, whose main trait is lying, or rather: enhancing the truth, and even believing it her-/himself.
    DP was not of Bettina’s caliber. However, in similar fashion, she depicted herself as Elgar’s innermost confidante, who understood his music, his musical allusions etc. better than anyone else. Did Elgar solve John Holt Schooling’s fourth cipher – yes. Did Elgar write the “Dorabella Cipher”, or the “Marco”- and “Liszt” scribblings – definitely not!

  7. #8 Thomas Ernst
    5. August 2017

    Apologies – the poem alluded to above was quoted by Elgar, but is by Whitman:

    “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d:
    They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
    They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
    Not one is dissatisfied – not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
    Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
    Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.”

    Here is the website about Elgar and his dogs:

  8. #9 Thomas Ernst
    6. August 2017

    Should like to add that both the 1886 Liszt-program as well as the “notebook” cipher-dabblings indeed are housed in the Elgar Birthplace Museum. Which opened – as mentioned above – in 1934, and not, as stated by DP, in 1938. Post-dating the opening of the museum would authenticate DP’s 1937 forgery. Since the museum opened in 1934, DP had ample time, ambling from room to room on a slow day, to add those two “ciphers” herself. Only mistake she made was that she scribbled the “zifram nascentem” in a note book post-dating 1886 and 1897 by some thirty years.

  9. #10 Thomas Ernst
    7. August 2017

    Furthermore should like to add a description of the “Marco”-pages, a) because contextually they are the oldest document in the cipher tryptich, b) because unless you have Sams’ article, they are difficult to discern if you google their images, c) because their contents has not of yet been accurately described. These two pages not pretend to contain a cipher per se, but rather describe the design and the possibilities of the two supposed ciphers in the Liszt programme and Dorabella Powell’s memoirs. The first three lines on the left page illustrate the possibilities of a cipher alphabet using one, two, and three semicircles, leaning, from one to three units, by 45° clockwise, in the sequence 360°, 45° , 90°, 135°, 180°, 225°, 270°, 315°, with their corresponding plaintext alphabet written underneath: “ABC DEF GHIJ / KLM NOP / QRS / TUVW / XYZ”. The seventh line enciphers MARCO ELGAR in the substitution given above. The eighth and ninth line encipher A VERY OLD CYPHER: first in round, then in square semicircles; same substitution. Beneath that follows, enciphered, DO YOU GO TO LONDON? (the question mark not being enciphered). The one square and four circles at the bottom of the left page illustrate the representational possibilities of eight angles in subdivisions of four. – The right page repeats the rounded cypher symbols, only without a plaintext alphabet beneath, and in different sequences of angle: 360°, 135°, 180°, 225°, 270° / 360°, 135°, 180°, 225°, 270° / 360°, 45°, 90°, 135°, 180°, 225°, 270°. The following plaintext “DO YOU GO TO LONDON TOMORROW?” is NOT enciphered; it rather serves for a frequency count of the vowel “O”, listed as “9” underneath. The concluding numerals seem to stand in no relation to the cipher. They show variant writings of “4”. – The handwriting of the rounded cipher symbols appears to be the same as in the Liszt program and the “Dorabella” cipher. However, when one copies an unfamiliar, written sybol, one often stays closer to original just because of the unfamiliarity. Have ten people write the letter “g”, and chances are you will get ten variants regarding slant etc. Have ten people copy a hieroglyph, chances are the ten copies will be similar. The spaniel Marco, perhaps Elgar’s favourite of his three dogs, was born or at least entered Elgar’s possession in 1924, as can be glanced from his and Mina’s tombstone in the garden of Elgar’s birthplace. Thus, these notes on a cipher post-date 1924. Elgar was deeply devoted to his dogs; the fact that MARCO ELGAR is the first enciphered text on the page suggest the possibility that Elgar himself wrote these two pages, which are completely coherent in themselves. When the BBC had Elgar conduct a seventieth birthday concert from Studio 1, Savoy Hill, in June of 1927, Elgar signed off the broadcast with the words: “Good night everybody. Good night, Marco.” – While the Liszt and Dorabella “ciphers” definitely are frauds, the “Marco”-pages may be authentic Elgar – post 1924. Regarding Elgar and dogs, Dora Powell wrote: “I never found out that E. E. was particularly fond of dogs, and they had no dog in the house during Lady Elgar’s lifetime” (p. 8). However, DP was aware of the conductor’s G. R. Sinclair love for his bulldog Dan (p. 80), whom Elgar had depicted musically in both his “King Olaf” as well as in the “Enigma Variations” (p. 113). Thus the question about MARCO ELGAR arises: would DP have come up with this as her first enciphering example? MARCO perhaps, but not MARCO ELGAR – this is EE writing. At present, I assume that the “Marco”-pages are authentic, and that DP based her two forgeries on their design. After all, she had been made the “archivist” by Lady Elgar – gathering anything published and written about Elgar – , and continued her duties as such after her “memories” end (spring 1914). She would have heard the radio broadcast of June, 1927, which might have inspired her to think of Marco. However, the formulation MARCO ELGAR appears to me as genuine Elgar. In that case, DP espied Elgar’s Marco-pages in the museum, and devised her own little frauds, fully knowing that they could never be solved. If you read DP’s memoirs – and I suggest you do – it becomes apparent that DP was highly intelligent (just like Bettina a hundred years before her). On p. 109, while DP describes the people behind the “Enigma Variations”, she drops a beautiful line out of the blue: “The things that people invent!” She was one of the inventors.

  10. […] vorstellen. Nachdem auch Klaus Schmeh kürzlich in seiner Kolumne im Rahmen einer Top-50-Liste kurz darauf einging, beginne ich mit der […]

  11. #12 Marc
    12. August 2017

    @Thomas Ernst
    Ich hätte da eine Frage an Sie bezüglich der Verwendung alter, ausgedienter Wörter im Zusammenhang mit dieser Chiffre. Speziell geht es mir um die Wörter “thou” und “thee”, die im modernen Englisch wohl nicht mehr gebräuchlich sind. Da ich jedoch beide in der Chiffre gefunden habe, sowie auch die Formulierung “being of thou”, frage ich mich, ob diese zu Elgar’s Zeiten noch in Gebrauch waren. Vielen Dank schonmal im Vorraus für Ihre Mühe.

  12. #13 Thomas Ernst
    13. August 2017

    @ Marc: natürlich wäre Elgar mit den älteren Formen von Pronomina vertraut gewesen und hätte sie auch benutzen können. Aber Sie wagen sich da auf undankbares und abschüssiges Gelände. “Being of thou” ist schon ein wenig herbeigezwungen. Zuerst kommt das alte Englisch; wenn das nicht mehr reicht, muß irgendein Dialekt her; wenn der nicht mehr paßt, werden Unsinnswörter herbeigezogen, die durch Elgars eigene, gelegentliche Wortverdrehungen – die bekannten “Bung yirds” – gerechtfertigt werden: welche wiederum nur durch DP dokumentiert sind. Die sogenannte “Dorabella-Chiffre” ist eine Art Rauschgift: man glaubt, das sei doch gar nicht so schwer, dann vergehen Tage, Wochen, Monate, nichts Vernünftiges kommt ‘bei ‘raus – und ehe man sich’s versieht, ist man abhängig von einer Sinnstiftung geworden, die es nicht geben kann. Entziehen Sie sich lieber dieses pseudo-kryptologischen Rauschgifts, ehe es Ihnen den Spätsommer vermiest. – Ich habe vor, beim Elgar-Museum anzufragen, ob es bekannt ist, seit wann dort das Notizheft mit den “Marco”-Chiffrierungen ausliegt, und überhaupt in welchem Zusammenhang sie dort stehen. Ich finde es immer wieder erstaunlich, wie wenig sich Dorabellisten mit der Provenienz dieser drei Dokumente befassen. – Verwenden Sie Ihren gesunden kryptologischen Instinkt auf etwas Würdigeres …

  13. #14 Marc
    14. August 2017

    @Thomas Ernst
    Danke für Ihre ehrliche Einschätzung, ich werde Ihren Ratschlag beherzigen. Trotzdem möchte ich noch kurz ergänzen, wie man auf die o.g. Wörter bzw. Formulierung kommen kann. Ich hatte hierfür angenommen, dass die 3 Zeilen mit jeweils unterschiedlichen Substitutionen verschlüsselt wurden und diese von rechts nach links zu lesen sind.

    • #15 Thomas Ernst
      14. August 2017

      @ Marc: Ihr Gedanke, es mit verschiedenen Substitutionsalphabeten zu versuchen, und dies sogar rückläufig, ist in sich selbst wertvoll. Wäre es wert, diesen Gedanken bei “Dorabella” zu verfolgen, würde ich allerdings die ersten zwei Zeilen zusammennehmen, und nur bei der dritten eine andere Substitution versuchen. Doch siehe oben – es ist es NICHT wert! Ihre Gegegnüberstellung von “you” and “thee” entspricht zufällig einem Nebengedanken in meinem “Anti-Dorabella”-Artikel (in Arbeit, noch nicht erschienen; geplanter Titel: “A cipher that is and isn’t: Elgar’s Marco – Dora’s Falso”). Folgendes Argument hat nur Gültigkeit unter der Voraussetzung, daß a) die Marco-Chiffrierungen authentisch sind, b) daß DP sich von diesen zu ihren Fälschungen verleiten ließ.
      Follows the excerpt:

      “[…] The substitution of all three lines with Elgar’s “Marco”-monoalphabet will yield:

      B P E C A H T C K Y F R Q D R I/J R R H P P R [D/G] [T/X] Y X G F S.
      T R T H [T/X] C K M C E R R E H G Q T R F R H W S Q [D/G] X K K X F S
      E S H U/V S E [D/G] U/V W G S E R H W Q S G C P G S H C [D/G] [A/X] C

      Not good reading. However, one unusual aspect jumps out off this blurble: the paucity of vowels. Three vowels in line 1 (10%), two vowels in line 2 (6%), and – granting A-status to the penultimate – four vowels in line 3 (rounded up, 15%). Maximally nine vowels per 87 signs constitute 10.3%.
      It is difficult to think of this paucity of vowels in relation to Elgar’s original monoalphabet as being coincidental. I think the reduction of vowels (in relation to the “Marco”-cipher) was one of Dora Powell’s means to intentionally make her “cipher” unintelligible.
      Since Elgar suggested different sequences of angle, while maintaining the sequence of one, two, three semicircles within each group, I shuffled the sequence of angle-triplets by keeping the original plaintext alphabet intact: A, D, G, K, N, Q, T, X would always be one semicircle, but at any of the eight different angles, the doubles in the middle would remain the same, C, F, I/J, M, P, S, W, Z would always be triples. All these attempts quickly turned to naught: once you try one set of 3, the consonant bottle neck in the middle of line 1 will dictate where a vowel is needed, which brought more consonants with it, which left the “text” unintelligible. The reader can try it for her/himself; I shall not bother to list my attempts. I went a step further than Elgar and arranged the plaintext alphabet from Z to A, then – staying true to his groupings of three – attempted the same variations as mentioned above. To no avail. I have not attempted a “free” arrangement of the alphabet – plaintext sequence B to A, or random sequence – because that has been sufficiently attempted in the past sixty years or so. A lot of the resulting gibberish has successfully been published.
      The eighteen symbols in the left margin of the 1886 programme – which need to be read sideways – do not fare better: F H S T R S G B H I/J E T S H M U/V Q T/X in the original “Marco”-cipher. Three possible vowels out of eighteen letters equal – rounded up – 17%. I have not attempted any shufflings on these signs.
      The thirty letters of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” display 40% shiny golden vowels, even were it “you” instead of “thee”. Unlike Shakespeare’s summer, the “Dorabella-Cipher” hath had all too long a date. […]”