The British codebreaker and mathematical genius, Alan Turing, who today is the subject of a Google Doodle, thanks to his 100th birthday, might not have committed suicide as was widely believed at the time. The original inquest of 1954 was questioned by Turing expert – Professor Jack Copeland, in a conference in Oxford and it is believed that should the evidence be produced today, it would not be sufficient to command a suicide verdict. Alan Turing was suspected of dying by cyanide poisoning as his housekeeper found him dead in his bed with a half-eaten apple on his bedside table. Turing had been suffering persecution because of his homosexuality and was fascinated by the tale of the poisoned apple in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is thought that he took the same end as Snow White in an attempt to end his suffering. However, Prof Copeland had uncovered that it was Turing’s habit to eat an apple and leave it half unfinished at night and therefore the remains of it cannot be an indication of an act of suicide. Plus the apple was never tested for cyanide. Moreover, friends and family members of Turing all attest to the 41 yr old’s happy and cheerful disposition before his death.
Another clue to his mental state is that he left himself a note the previous Friday, on his office desk, as he usually did to remind himself, of the tasks that needed to be done when he returned after the Bank Holiday weekend. This is not normally seen as the actions of a man about to commit suicide. However, at the 1954 inquest, the coroner, Mr JAK Ferns stated, “In a man of his type, one never knows what his mental processes are going to do next.” We presume by ‘type’ the coroner meant his homosexuality. Turing did have a motive to commit suicide. Back in 1952, he had reported a petty burglary and soon afterwards found himself being investigated for ‘acts of gross indecency’ after he had revealed to the police that he had had a male lover in his house. He faced a prison sentence and the loss of his precious mathematics employ which he revered as it gave him access to one of the world’s only computers. Turing was offered an alternative of prison which was ‘chemical castrastion’, supposed to suppress his sexual urges. In some people this chemical can actually cause men to grow breasts but Turing only mentioned this happening to him once.
Prof Copeland suggests a simpler explanation for Turing’s demise. Turing already kept cyanide in his house for experiments he conducted in his spare room. Turing was known to be careless when he was experimenting and had on several occasions, electricuted himself, plus he was known to taste chemicals in an attempt to identify them. Is it possible that he could have split some cyanide and accidently left his night time apple in a puddle of it? Or could he have inhaled vapours from the bubbling liquid? Prof Copeland notes that Turing’s room had a ‘strong smell’ of cyanide after his death and that the distribution of the poison in Turing’s organs was more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion. With all the evidence it might never be possible to accurately prove how Turing did die but Prof Copeland would prefer a verdict of accidental death or an ‘open verdict’. that an accidental death is certainly consistent with all the currently known circumstances.
None of this excuses the treatment of Turing during his final years, says Prof Copeland as he told the BBC, “Turing was hounded, yet he remained cheerful and humorous. The thing is to tell the truth in so far as we know it, and not to speculate. In a way we have in modern times been recreating the narrative of Turing’s life, and we have recreated him as an unhappy young man who committed suicide. But the evidence is not there. The exact circumstances of Turing’s death will probably always be unclear. Perhaps we should just shrug our shoulders, and focus on Turing’s life and extraordinary work.” Prof Copeland concludes.