“A Great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine
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Days since the Centenary: 15
Days to the Bicentennial: 36,509
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 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.
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.
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.)