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An Enigma We Should Solve: The Struggle to Memorialize Alan Turing Decades After His Death

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

Usually the month of June is full of vibrancy with weekends marking PRIDE celebrations across the nation in recognition of the Stonewall Uprising that took place on June 28, 1969. The pandemic has logically dampened these celebrations, and the LGBTQ+ community certainly understand the importance of working together in an international health crisis. This post, however, is not about Stonewall or the AIDS crisis. Instead, this post commemorates the tragic death of one of the modern world’s greatest yet relatively unknown heroes—Alan Turing.

Turing was born not far from Paddington Station in London on June 23, 1912 to civil servants working in the Madras Province of British-held India. For long periods in the first decade of his life, the young Alan and his brother lived separately from their parents until his father’s commission ended. By the time Turing entered the historic Sherborne School as a teenager, he had developed a keen interest in mathematics and science, in part because his grandfather was a railway engineer. The British public school system aimed to produce more well-rounded or cultured generalists, and the Sherborne School administration noted with scorn the young boys exceptional technical and scientific talents and general ambivalence for everything else. He proceeded, however, to study mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge between 1931 and 1934. A year later, he was elected as a Fellow and began work on algorithms and computation, which culminated in a doctorate in Mathematics from Princeton University in June 1938.

A few days after the declaration of war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, Turing joined other cryptologists and specialists at Bletchley Park to aid the British governments war efforts. Through cooperation with continental resistance groups and espionage agencies, Turing was given important details about the infamous German cryptograph machine Enigma, which used a series of electrified rotors to encode text to be sent and deciphered by Nazis. The machine he created, known as the bombe, was more flexible in its ability to decipher codes compared to those created by other cryptologists. This meant that Turing’s creation could provide more ciphering possibilities and be more adaptable if the Germans changed the way they approached encoding their information.

His contribution to the war effort did not stop there though. In addition to building this computation machine, he developed a crypto-strategy so that it could be programmed (so to speak) to crack the German Naval codes to stop the sinking (in reality a hemorrhaging) of so many Royal and allied naval ships by German U-boats and to allow for vital food and aid to reach Britain. This in itself sustained the British war effort, which otherwise could have easily collapsed because of the Battle of the Atlantic and the numerous air raids that decimated British cities.

A loosely biographical version of Turing’s time at Bletchley Park was released as The Imitation Game in late 2014 with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan. The film properly notes the struggles for funding that the mathematician faced when attempting to build his version of the bombe as well as some of the workplace dynamics between the genius and those surrounding him. It does take liberties with other elements, but it serves as a decent enough biopic. Most importantly in terms of Turing’s war-contributions we see the eureka moment when he realized that he could program the bombe to search for words that he knew were common in order to more quickly produce the cipher for any particular day’s enigma codes. As the film depicts, this cut the days of mechanical droning and failure down to mere minutes of waiting for the cracked code. Then one of the ethical conundrums in the film appears—Turing can potentially crack every coded message, but the British government cannot take action to prevent every loss of life or this would raise the suspicion of the Germans, who may change tactics altogether.

The second major storyline addressed within the historical drama is Turing’s sexuality. The opening scenes of the film begin with the infamous robbery investigation at his place in Manchester in 1951 before flashing back to his Sherborne days where he developed his first significant crush on Christopher Morcom. This crush ended in tragedy as the boy died from bovine tuberculosis. In the film, the machine that Turing creates is lovingly referred to as Christopher in honor of his friend/schoolboy crush. In poignant ways, the film captures Turing’s struggle to fit the “normal” vein as well as to subvert it. He hires a female cryptologist, Joan Clarke, from Cambridge at a time when respectable single women rarely worked in male venues, and then he proposes to her roughly a year later. We know that Clarke and Turing enjoyed a fond but chaste relationship as he did disclose his homosexuality to her.

It’s at this point that the everpresent mid-century threat to homosexual men rears its head—blackmail. A fellow cryptographer, John Cairncross, learns that Turing is homosexual and that the proposed marriage is simply a cover for him and an attempt to keep the talented Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, on staff. Turing later discovers that Cairncross is a Soviet spy and during their confrontation he threatens to blackmail Turing if his own secret is not kept. As seen in David K. Johnson’s study The Lavender Scare, governments were deeply concerned about homosexuals in their ranks who could be blackmailed by foreign adversaries and turned into spies and traitors. In the case of The Imitation Game, however, it was indeed the heterosexual Cairncross and not the homosexual Turing that was willingly sharing secrets with the Soviets as part of the Cambridge Five. It is important to note though that this type of blackmail played out not only on the silver screen in such classics as Victim, but also frequently in courtroom testimonies as the sexualities of various closeted men like Turing were uncovered in public. Eventually, high profile arrests and intimate courtroom disclosures resulted in the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which finally decriminalized private consensual sex acts between males 21 years of age or older in England and Wales.

As mentioned above, the film begins with the Manchester police officers surveying Turing’s home for evidence of robbery and then shows his conviction for gross indecency. In the closing moments of the film, Knightley’s character visits the broken genius whose mind has been altered by chemical castration. Early in January 1952, Turing had met the nineteen-year-old Arnold Murray while walking along Oxford Road near the Dancehouse Theatre today. It is unclear whether Murray was 'trade,' but he was unemployed and did rob Turing’s home a few weeks later. During the investigation that followed, Turing’s sexual acts with the younger man were disclosed and they were charged with gross indecency stemming from an 1885 law. There was little point in fighting the case, so Turing entered a guilty plea and was convicted after it went to trial on March 31, 1952. He chose to forego prison time and instead chose a year of synthetic estrogen injections. As we know from conversion therapy studies, chemical castration typically renders the person impotent, often depressed, and also results in overt feminization of the male body. This was incredibly damaging to the insular academic and amateur athlete, who missed a berth on the Olympic team for the 1948 London Games because of injury. Because of fears of blackmail, his conviction ended his work with British intelligence, but he was able to maintain teaching and research in Manchester until his untimely death.

Biographers, historians, and other interested parties disagree on the events that resulted in Turing’s death. It is generally assumed that Turing ingested cyanide via an apple found by his corpse in an effort to commit suicide. Although depression and suicide are not unrelated effects of the punishment Turing received for his criminalized sexuality, it is also possible that he merely inhaled cyanide fumes through some of his work. Friends and family noted that he had the habit of eating an apple daily, and in his case he generally did so before he went to bed. Regardless, the world lost a hero whose government terribly mistreated him before his death because of the deep misunderstanding of the complexities of human sexuality and the crass penchant to medicalize and criminalize that which we do not fully understand.

Turing is but one example of a handful of people who almost single-handedly ensured victory for the allies during World War II. Memorialization of the brave men and women who served as well as countless officials can be seen all across Britain, but it has taken decades for Turing to receive such treatment. The mathematician finally received a posthumous apology from the British Government on September 10, 2009 following public outcry and petitions. On that date, Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Turing’s accomplishments and the harsh penalties homosexual men faced pre-Wolfenden before uttering the words “we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”

Two years later constituents working with the Member of Parliament for Manchester, John Leech (below right), pressured the government for a posthumous pardon. This petition also went comparatively viral, but was denied by the Justice Minister because he saw the attempt as subverting history. Lord McNally acknowledged the atrocious treatment that men like Turing received, but dug in his heels by arguing that Turing understood the law, admittedly broke the law, and was correctly punished by the reading of the law for that time. It is Leech’s tireless campaign for a pardon between 2011 and 2014 that in part influenced the production of the film mentioned above. In October 2012 a bill passed the House of Lords in support of a pardon, but the bill stalled in the House of Commons. It was at this point on Christmas Eve of 2013 that Queen Elizabeth II used her pardoning powers, at the request of parliament, to pardon the war hero.

The pardon itself was controversial and encountered some resistance--even from queer activist Peter Tatchell. In effect, the criticism had two parts. The first was that Turing was not somehow more exemplary than fifty-thousand other men convicted of such offenses, and that the pardon did not correct the government’s failure, which was criminalizing homosexuality in the first place. In September 2016, the Conservative led government began movements to exonerate the records of other homosexuals, and this resulted in the passage of the Policing and Crime Act of 2017 more commonly known as Alan Turing’s Law.

Memorialization of Turing has proven an equally tenuous process as pardoning him. Across Britain, familiar blue circles mark the sites where Alan Turing grew up, was educated, and where he worked. For those who travel to Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes, the mathematician and cryptologist’s famous work is memorialized in slate by Stephen Kettle. Turing is seated intently examining a German enigma machine—a clear nod to his contribution to the allied war effort. The memorial, however, was the gift of American businessman Sidney Frank, and not commissioned by the British Government or its intelligence services. Turing’s criminal record extant until 2013 may have contributed to the lack of official memorialization, but this particular memorial makes no mention of his sexuality either.

Even as late as last month, a memorial to the mathematician was denied placement at King’s College, Cambridge because of objections by the preservationist-minded and government-funded organization, Historic England. The preservationists asserted that the steel sculpture designed by Sir Antony Gormley was too modern, abstract, and most of all completely incongruent with the architecture of the College. Cambridge’s city council can potentially overturn the decision or choose a municipal site for the sculpture, but the initial no from the government organ stings for those involved. In contrast to his esteemed alma mater, Manchester University named a building after Turing in 2008.

Mancunians also crowdfunded a memorial of Turing seated upon a bench for their city, and its location acknowledges the tension between the two major parts of his legacy. To one side of the memorial is Manchester University and to the other is the city's queer district.

Turing's duality as a war-hero and a criminal/victim of arcane sexual statutes has resulted in uneven and incomplete treatments of his legacy. Hollywood has made significant strides in introducing Turing to new audiences, acknowledging both his sexuality and his research, noting the protracted pardon attempts, and emphasizing his gift to the world, especially when compared to the actions of the government for which he worked. Perhaps Hollywood's focus on Turing is fitting, he reportedly loved the film Snow White and potentially died from a poisoned apple as seen in his hand above.

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