Alan Turing & The Suicide Question

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The official verdict regarding Alan Turing’s death ruled it a suicide.  Now there is specualtion that Turing’s death may have been accidental rather than intentional.

The man behind the questions is Jack Copeland, a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.  He is (among other things) the author of several books on Turing and the Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing.

Professor Jack Copeland

Professor Jack Copeland

Professor Copeland has revisited the official determination and found it wanting.  As the BBC reports:

He believes the evidence would not today be accepted as sufficient to establish a suicide verdict.

Indeed, he argues, Turing’s death may equally probably have been an accident.

What is well known and accepted is that Alan Turing died of cyanide poisoning.

His housekeeper famously found the 41-year-old mathematician dead in his bed, with a half-eaten apple on his bedside table.

It is widely said that Turing had been haunted by the story of the poisoned apple in the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and had resorted to the same desperate measure to end the persecution he was suffering as a result of his homosexuality.

But according to Prof Copeland, it was Turing’s habit to take an apple at bedtime, and that it was quite usual for him not to finish it; the half-eaten remains found near his body cannot be seen as an indication of a deliberate act.

Indeed, the police never tested the apple for the presence of cyanide.

Moreover, Prof Copeland emphasises, a coroner these days would demand evidence of pre-meditation before announcing a verdict of suicide, yet nothing in the accounts of Turing’s last days suggest he was in anything but a cheerful mood.

As comforting as it might be to imagine that Turing died accidentally rather than by his own hand, there are strong arguments against the conclusion.  The creators of the film Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker, which portrays Turing in psychoanalysis near the end of this life, have posted a respectful but adamant point-by-point refutation of Copeland’s position.

The Codebreaker web site

The Codebreaker web site

You can find the entire argument at the link above (or click on the image of the web site), but I will list the first two points to give you a sense of their position.

1. Alan Turing’s brother John has written an account of his brother Alan in which he describes reading the dream books that Alan Turing had written at the suggestion of Dr. Franz Greenbaum, a Jungian analyst whom Alan visited during the last 18 months of his life.  After Alan’s death, John Turing was urged to read these dream books by Dr. Greenbaum because at the time John was inclined to believe the death was an accident.  Greenbaum felt that there was enough evidence in the dream books to suggest that Alan was deeply unhappy and that suicide was a likely scenario. After reading the dream books John Turing changed his mind: Alan, in his mind, had committed suicide.  The dream books have since been destroyed, but John Turing’s son Dermot is convinced that his father was right and that his uncle Alan committed suicide.  In turn, Dr. Greenbaum’s surviving daughters remember their father being devastated at Alan’s death, devastated because as his therapist he had an insight into Alan’s death as suicide rather than accident.

2.  Professor Copeland says the coroner should not have ruled the death a suicide in part because there was no evidence of pre-meditation.  The historical record tells a different story.  First, Turing prepared a last will and testament on February 11, 1954, less than four months before his death.  Turing biographer Andrew Hodges, in his book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” notes that Turing mentioned suicide as far back as 1937.  Additionally, Turing’s close friend and the executor of his will, Nick Furbank wrote to Turing’s friend Robin Gandy soon after the death.  Furbank mentioned that Turing had previously spoken of suicide to him and Turing had put some of his papers in order before his death.  Furbank wrote, “The way he talked about suicide before, and his general way of doing things (plus the fact that he had arranged his letters in labeled packets) still makes me think he could not have done it just on impulse.”

Believers of the accident theory point to unsent mail and an appointment for the day after his death as evidence of an accident.  Experts on suicide have told us that often the actual decision is made on an impulse.  With Turing, it seems he had thought about it for some time, but may have made the actual decision to carry it out in the spur of the moment.  Experts told us how the families of suicide victims often protest that the death would have made sense a few months or years before the fatal act.  Or that their loved one was not acting depressed.  In fact, they say there may have been a recent improvement in their condition.  The fact that some people who saw Turing in the days before his death were confused by his apparent suicide is not unusual when compared with other cases of suicide.  We will never know the exact reasons why he did it because suicide is often an inexplicable act.

Who’s right?

I think Professor Copeland’s examination of the question is worthwhile, but I strongly suspect that Turing did, in fact, die of suicide and that the evidence in favour of this conclusion is stronger than that which purportedly indicates accident.

More importantly, I’m not sure how much it matters.  As I said, it’s tempting to seek comfort in the idea of an accident, but is there really comfort to be found there?

At one time it might have spared his family shame if his death had been an accident rather than a suicide, and this must have been a consideration at the time when both his sexuality and the manner of his death must have made matters doubly painful for his family and friends, but I doubt that’s much of a consideration today.

It’s tempting to hope that Turing didn’t suffer so much distress over his arrest, conviction, and chemical treatment (see the About Alan Turing page for details) that he took his own life, but his suffering on these counts was no less real even if his death was accidental.

And his actual death can hardly have been any less terrible to experience if he suddenly found himself suffering painfully from acute cyanide poisoning and realized that his failure to take proper precautions had doomed him, rather than intentionally poisoning himself and lying down to await death.

If someone were proposing that Turing had been assassinated, that might make a meaningful difference in our understanding of him and of the significance of his death, but I’m not sure that proposing an accidental death has the same effect.

(To my knowledge no one has suggested assassination apart from in an entirely fictional setting.  Computer scientis, science fiction writer, and high level Turing Elf Rudy Rucker raised the possibility in his surreal story The Imitation Game, which imagines a failed assasination attempt by the British government, foiled by Turing, who then fakes his own death and escapes to Tangier. I highly recommend The Imitation Game, by the way, which will ultimately form part of Rucker’s upcoming novel, The Turing Chronicles.  You can hear Rucker read the story here.)

Still, I’m open to persuasion.  If you’ve reached a different conclusion, feel free to post a comment or to email me at nas@nassauhedron.com.
A trailer for Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker can be found below.
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This entry was posted in Briatin's Greatest Codebreaker, Rudy Rucker, suicide, The Imitation Game (short story), Turing-elves. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Alan Turing & The Suicide Question

  1. I can’t believe this is my first comment on this blog – wish it wasn’t such a sad one.

    I think the point that really stuck out for me was that Turing didn’t exhibit signs of suicidal ideation before his death, therefore suicide was unlikely. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about mental health will immediately see how flawed this is. People often go to the greatest lengths possible to conceal their suicidal feelings and intentions (let’s not forget it was still illegal in Turing’s day!). Sadly this can be particularly true for men in a culture that calls them weak for seeking help.

    Either way, I wish we weren’t having this conversation.

    • Hey Courtney, thanks for commenting and it’s good to see you here!

      I agree that it’s a sad topic, but I couldn’t agree more with your comment — I think it’s naive to imagine that just because someone doesn’t act outwardly depressed immediately before their death that somehow they’re unlikely to have committed suicide. Some people are fairly transparent and others are very adept at hiding what they’re feeling, even when their feelings are extreme. I can think of at least one person I’ve known — someone I was quite close to — where it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that he was at risk of taking his own life until it happened, including me, but there’s no doubt that he killed himself.

      Okay, next time a happier topic!

      Nas

  2. As I recall, having seen Jack give his presentation at Oxford on Turing’s birthday, Jack does not state a case against suicide but rather says the question is open to further inquiry and offers three scenarios.

    In addition to suicide, against which he raises several points not well considered before, he makes an argument for accidental death on the basis that Turing was a well-known klutz and may well have mishandled the cyanide he worked with, and he also suggests that murder by an Intelligence agency, in the cold war climate post Burgess, is plausible on the basis that Turing and homosexuals in general were considered a security risk.

    In the latter cause he cites several compelling circumstances: the most memorable of which were that Turing was manifestly being monitored by intelligence agencies and, perhaps most telling, on the morning of his death Turing’s shoes were placed outside of his room, a habit of English gentlemen but not a habit that Turing had acquired.

    Jack simply suggests that one of the other two scenario is as plausible, if not more plausible, than a suicide that may well have been an easy cover story. Having spoken now to one or two people that knew Turing at the time of his death myself and having heard Jack’s well considered case it seems justified to inquire further.

    From the point of view of open-minded historical scholarship, the spirit in which the evidence is presented, the evidence Jack presents is worth inspecting.

    • Steven, thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

      I certainly don’t disagree that open-minded historical investigation is worthwhile, including into this particular question. I’ll cop to the fact that my description of Copeland’s thesis was based on media reports rather than Copeland’s own work, so it may not have represented every aspect of his work or it may have lacked the detail that would give his work nuance.

      I still think that suicide is the most likely hypothesis, and I do still hold that in most of the ways that are important not much turns on the question of suicide vs. accident, but that isn’t to denigrate an investigation of the kind that Copeland conducted.

      If assassination is a serious possibility — it strikes me as a not impossible hypothesis, but I haven’t seen or heard of any evidence to support it — then that would certainly require a serious reassessment of Turing’s place in history.

      I hope you’ll come back to the page from time to time and I look forward to future comments.

      Nas

      • The question that scholars must ask is: has Jack made a sufficiently compelling case to support his assertion the the matter should, dispassionately, independent of any opinion, emotional attachment or predilection, be considered open. I think that he has.

        The challenge is that there is no clear way currently to resolve the suicide/accidental death question. Given the cold-war climate of the time, the obvious concerns of the security services, and what was surely considered Turing’s reckless and provocative behavior in Europe, the question of assassination should be looked at further by scholars, if only to dismiss it. There is some potential now for the question to be elucidated. Given Turing’s importance to national interests, unknown to his friends and the public at the time, what was the view of his behavior from within the Intelligence services? Under any circumstances there is a story there yet to be told.

        To be clear of my own position, I am not promoting one point of view over any other. As a scholar myself interested in the work and the life of Alan Turing I applaud Jack for being brave enough to bring the question forward and for the balanced way he has presented it. I agree that the question is open.

  3. Gary says:

    The Truth: No Matter How You See This, It Is Murder.

  4. ginobean says:

    The more I think about it, the more I think it wasn’t suicide. It doesn’t make any sense. He was living a fairly happy and productive life at the time. The chemical castration and the related humiliation of being punished for his homosexuality had already faded into past memory for him by the time of his death.

    Yes, it is possible that some people with suicidal tendencies try to hide it from others, but Turing was fairly straightforward with people about himself. With people he was friendly with, he would openly acknowledge his homosexuality by commenting on a good looking boy he had seen recently. He was fairly transparent and honest and I think if he had truly been suicidal, his closest friends would have seen some of the warning signs in advance.

    At the same time, he was not a great experimenter. He would sometimes accidentally shock himself with electricity during the course of some of his experiments. Given that he worked with cyanide in some of his experiments, it seems fairly plausible that he might have accidentally inhaled cyanide vapors.

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