The Turing Problem (Part 1)

When Alan Turing's house was burglarized on January 23, 1952, it didn't seem all that serious.  As Turing himself would later write in a lettter to a colleague:

I have just had my house broken into, and am still every few hours finding some fresh thing missing. Fortunately I am insured, and little has gone that is really irreplaceable. But the whole thing has had a very disturbing effect, especially as it followed shortly on a theft from me at the University. I go about expecting a brick to fall on my head or something disagreeable and unexpected anywhere.

Prophetic words.  When Turing reported the crime to the local police, he quickly began to suspect that a young lover of his, Arnold Murray, was involved.   He had met Murray earlier that month and they spent several nights together at Turing's house.   On being accused by Turing, Murray became agitated and threatened to tell the police everything about their relationship.  Given that homosexuality was still a criminal offense at the time, Turing knew perfectly well  what Arnold's confession would mean.  Despite the risk, Turing  simply told him to "do his worst" and Murray 225px-Alan_Turing_photo[1] settled down.    Murray admitted knowing the burglar (an acquaintance he had told about Turing's house) who had probably decided that Turing was a good target since he would be unlikely to report the robbery.   Although Turing was reassured enough to resume his relationship with Murray, he decided to go to the police with the information.   While the eminent mathematician did his best to conceal Murray's identity and the exact nature of their relationship, he was eventually forced to confess the truth.  His fate was sealed at that point.

The police were struck by Alan Turing's lack of shame in admitting his homosexuality.  He minimized the seriousness of his lifestyle and even protested that a Royal Commission was being planned to legalize it (he was mistakenn).   Under Section Eleven of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, homosexual conduct was classified as Gross Indecency.  Only applying to males (all lesbian references were removed from the act although the actual reasons for the exclusion remain murky),  the act made no distinction between public or private sex and permitted no exceptions.  While the 1885 legislation replaced earlier, more religion-inspired, laws classifying homosexuality as a "crime against nature", the days of convicted homosexuals serving prison sentences were hardly over by Alan Turing's time.  For all that his unconventional lifestyle was an open secret to many who knew him personally, Turing's failure to keep his life out of the public eye meant the he could be charged and convicted.

On February 27, both Arnold Murray and Alan Turing went on trial  At the urging of his brother, John Turing, he pleaded guilty to the charge against him.  No other verdict would have been possible since the written statement that he provided to police was used as evidence against him at his trial.   In many ways, Turing's arrest and conviction were typical for the time.  Between 1931 and 1952, prosecutions for homosexual conduct had increased by 500 per cent as a reaction to the increasing visibility of homosexuals in British society.  Despite Alan Turing's eminence in scientific and government circles, public exposure as a homosexual meant being classified as a sexual offender - the "lowest of the low" as far as "polite" British society was concerned.  It also took an emotional toll on Alan Turing's family.  In addition to his brother, he was also obliged to tell his elderly mother the truth about his personal life.  While Ethel Turing stood by him, his brother didn't hesitate to tell him that he considered homosexuality "disgusting and disreputable". 

Several of Turing's  colleagues from his Bletchley Park days also supported him.  His mentor, Max Newman, and fellow cryptanalyst Hugh Alexander acted as character witnesses during his trial.  This was a courageous  stand for them considering the "guilt by association" mentality that often tarred anyone who supported convicted sex criminals.   Many of Turing's friends, homosexuals themselves, felt obliged to distance themselves out of fear that they would be suspected as well.   Others stood by him although they felt distressed by the nature of the charge he was facing.   Since Alan Turing had a long history of outrageous behaviour,  his colleagues shrugged it off as being "typical Turing".  The ones who avoided him before had even more reason to avoid him after his conviction.   Through lobbying by Newman and others, Turing kept his fellowship at King's College, Cambridge but it was allowed to expire and was not renewed.    Turing remained active as  a mathematician throughout the trial and even attended an important conference on March 21. 

The case of Regina vs Turing and Murray was heard on March 31, 1952 with Judge J. Fraser Harrison presiding.   There were twelve charges in all focusing on the acts of Gross Indecency committed between Alan Turing and Arnold Murray.  Although they both pleaded guilty, the judge commented on Turing's lack of remorse for his actions but the various testimonials on his behalf helped ensure leniency.  While prison sentences for convicted homosexuals had become rarer (only 174 of the 746 men  convicted of 'gross indecency' in 1951 received prison sentences-typically less than six months),  other options were available by that time.   Arnold Murray received a conditional discharge (Turing defended him in court) but Alan Turing was placed on probation with the condition that he "submit for treatment by a duly qualified medical practitioner at Manchester Royal Infirmary". 

His punishment had only begun.

To be continued

 

 

 

           

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  • The Turing Problem (Part 3)
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