Mental math has never been a strength of mine. But the first time I heard the rhyme, “As I was going to St. Ives,” I gave it an honest effort.

The whole rhyme, in case you don’t recall, goes:

“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?”

Step one,  I thought, is to multiply seven wives times seven sacks, which was easy. There were 49 sacks.

Each sack had seven cats, so I needed to multiply 49 sacks times seven cats. For this, I used a little trick. In my head I multiplied seven times 50, which was easy: 350. Then I subtracted seven. The answer was 343.

Now I started to sweat. How do I multiply 343 cats times seven kittens?


I used the same method as before. That is, I multiplied 340 times seven, and got 2,380. Then I multiplied three times seven and got 21. Adding the two together, I came up with  2,401 kittens.

To keep that number in my head, I said it over and over as I moved on to the most difficult part: adding seven wives, plus 49 sacks, plus 343 cats, plus 2,401 kittens.

After a very long pause, I said triumphantly, “Two thousand eight hundred! No, wait. It’s two thousand eight hundred and one. I forgot to add the man.”

As was intended by the author of the rhyme, my heart was crushed. The actual answer was one. Only one person was going to St. Ives: the narrator. The others were coming from St. Ives.

This answer irritated me so much, I began to question everything in the rhyme.

It doesn’t say the group was headed in the opposite direction. The word “met” could mean that the narrator came upon the group, which was also headed to St. Ives. In which case the answer would be 2,801. Plus the narrator, so 2,802.


Or the answer could be zero. It asks, “Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?” If you accept that they were traveling in the opposite direction, then none—zero, zip, zilch—of that group were going you know where. (It doesn’t ask about the narrator, so the answer couldn’t be one.)

But wait. The poem says, “I met a man with seven wives.” He had seven wives, but were they traveling with him? If not, the answer is one.

Maybe the wives were traveling with him, but did they have the sacks? Perhaps their sacks and felines were at home. In which case, the answer is eight—the man and his wives.

Or it could be that the man’s wives were at home, but the sacks and cats were traveling with him. Heck, maybe he was delivering the sacks to his wives in St. Ives.

Out of sheer spite, I could do this all day long.

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