Turing’s Death Not a Suicide?

Professor Jack Copeland, an expert on the life of Alan Turing, believes there’s no evidence that Turing committed suicide.

Turing was found dead in his bed from cyanide poisoning on June 7th, 1954. He was 41 years old. Two years earlier he had been prosecuted for gross indecency after his homosexuality came to light during a police investigation into a burglary. Turing had agreed to be treated with female hormone in lieu of prison, and this “chemical castration” was widely believed to have sent him into a spiral of depression that culminated in his death. Because of his alleged obsession with Disney’s Snow White, he chose to die by reenacting the “poison apple” scene from the film. (It was assumed that the partially eaten apple by his bedside was laced with cyanide, but the apple was never even tested.)

Copeland doesn’t see a lot of evidence to support this narrative:

… 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.

We have 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”

He had left a note on his office desk, as was his practice, the previous Friday to remind himself of the tasks to be done on his return after the Bank Holiday weekend.

What is more, Turing had tolerated the year-long hormone treatment and the terms of his probation (“my shining virtue was terrific”) with amused fortitude, and another year had since passed seemingly without incident.

In statements to the coroner, friends had attested to his good humour in the days before his death.
His neighbour described him throwing “such a jolly [tea] party” for her and her son four days before he died.

His close friend Robin Gandy, who had stayed with him the weekend before, said that Turing “seemed, if anything, happier than usual”.

Yet the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”.

Prof Copeland believes the alternative explanation made at the time by Turing’s mother is equally likely.

Turing had cyanide in his house for chemical experiments he conducted in his tiny spare room – the nightmare room he had dubbed it.

He had been electrolysing solutions of the poison, and electroplating spoons with gold, a process that requires potassium cyanide. Although famed for his cerebral powers, Turing had also always shown an experimental bent, and these activities were not unusual for him.

But Turing was careless, Prof Copeland argues.

The electrolysis experiment was wired into the ceiling light socket.

On another occasion, an experiment had resulted in severe electric shocks.

And he was known for tasting chemicals to identify them.

Perhaps he had accidentally put his apple into a puddle of cyanide.

Or perhaps, more likely, he had accidentally inhaled cyanide vapours from the bubbling liquid.

Prof Copeland notes that the nightmare room had a “strong smell” of cyanide after Turing’s death; that inhalation leads to a slower death than ingestion; and that the distribution of the poison in Turing’s organs was more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion.

In his authoritative biography, Andrew Hodges suggests that the experiment was a ruse to disguise suicide, a scenario Turing had apparently mentioned to a friend in the past.

“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,” Prof Copeland concludes.

“Perhaps we should just shrug our shoulders, and focus on Turing’s life and extraordinary work.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that last line, but that doesn’t mean Turing didn’t kill himself. The “he didn’t seem depressed” anecdotes are meaningless: depression has high and lows, and it’s not uncommon for suicides to experience odd moments of euphoria, or simply put on a brave face, prior to the final act. It’s not a straight line downward to death: it’s more like a rollercoaster.

That said, the “poisoned apple” story always sounded unbelievably fanciful. It reads well in newspaper accounts and biographies, but seems like an oddly elaborate and contrived way for a person suffering from crushing depression to think. The idea of accidental inhalation of cyanide, on the other hand, seems far more plausible.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.