Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2020 Issue

Stolen Papers of Mathematician Alan Turing Seized by U.S. Attorney

Alan Turing on the £50 banknote.

The U.S. District Attorney for Colorado recently filed a forfeiture action in that state for various papers said to be stolen from a British boarding school in 1984. The various documents once belonged to Alan Mathison Turing, a mathematician, pioneer in developing computers and artificial intelligence, and a code breaker during the Second World War. The documents were given to the Sherborne School in England, which he attended in his youth, by Turing's mother between 1965-1967. The material was stored in a wooden box in a laboratory. Evidently, security at the school was lax, to say the least.

 

Alan Turing was a remarkable but tragic figure. It was recognized early on that he was a genius, with his focus on mathematical and scientific issues. One of the items in the collection was a report he wrote for his mother describing Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Few of us will ever be able to understand it, let alone write a report on it. Turing was 15 years old at the time.

 

During the war, he was a leader of the group deciphering coded messages by the Germans. No one knows what this work saved, but some estimate it may have been millions of lives and much time in prosecuting the war. Despite the importance of his contributions, few of his countrymen were aware of them because his work was top secret.

 

After the war, he began working on early computers and programs. Unfortunately, this is when things went wrong. Turing was homosexual, and in 1952, he was charged with “gross indecency.” Homosexual acts were illegal in Britain at the time. He was given a choice – go to prison or submit to chemical treatment which would make him more feminine, while reducing his desires. He opted for the latter, but he still lost his security clearances. In 1954, Turing was found dead. He died from cyanide poisoning. The official verdict was suicide though some believe it was accidental. He was 41 years old at the time.

 

Among the other items in this collection are several photographs of Turing, numerous report cards from his days at Sherborne, his Ph.D. diploma in mathematics from Princeton University, a few postcards, and a letter he received from King George VI awarding him the Order of the British Empire. These were seized from the defendant in this case two years ago, but the action of forfeiture, which would return them to Sherborne, was only recently commenced.

 

As for the theft of these items, this is a bizarre case. Charged in the theft is Julia Mathison Turing. Despite the similarity of names, Julia Mathison Turing is not related to Alan Mathison Turing. She changed her name in 1998 to be similar to his. It previously was Julie Ann Schwinghamer. Ms. Turing, still Schwinghamer at the time, went to the Sherborne School in 1984 and asked to see his papers. Some remembered her claiming to be a relative of Dr. Turing, possibly a daughter. She took the papers but left a note saying she would return them. She did return some, but not all. It appears the school did little to force her to return everything.

 

In 2018, the now Ms. Turing approached the University of Colorado in Boulder and offered to loan them Turing's documents. One of the things the university does in such a situation is to immediately research the documents and concluded these had been stolen. They were seized by the U.S. government and now the forfeiture action has been undertaken.

 

As for Ms. Schwinghamer-Turing, it is evident she has some sort of obsession with Dr. Turing. It is hard to understand since his date of death – 1954 – means that the two were never acquainted. One imagines her greatest need now is psychological help.

Rare Book Monthly

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