More than 250 items belonging to super-Brit Alan Turing, including his OBE medal, that went missing decades ago were found hidden behind a bathroom wall in America, according to new court documents.
The items, which include photos of the revered mathematician and school reports from his teenage years, vanished 36 years ago from the Sherborne boarding school he attended in Dorset, UK. Turing’s mother had, a few years prior, donated the belongings to the school. Turing died in 1954 from cyanide poisoning although suicide is strongly suspected.
The woman accused of the theft, Julia Mathison Turing, visited the school in 1984, and when left unattended, it is claimed, stole the items, leaving a note that read: “Please forgive me for taking these materials into my possession. They will be well taken care of while under the care of my hands and shall one day all be returned to this spot.”
In 2018, she approached the University of Colorado, claiming to be Turing’s daughter, and offered the possessions for display, alongside artwork she made based on the documents, it is alleged. But investigations by the university quickly revealed Turing had no daughter – he was gay and persecuted as such in the UK – and raised the alarm.
Armed with a federal search warrant, US Homeland Security agents raided her house and, it is claimed, uncovered a treasure trove of Turing memorabilia, including letters that she had exchanged over the years with the bursar of the boarding school.
According to court documents filed by the American government, it appears she had been carrying the belongings with her for the past 30 years as she moved from Arizona to California to Colorado, and had got away with the theft in large part because she returned some items to the school a few years and claimed to have retained only a single photograph.
The school did not have an inventory of the memorabilia, and took her at her word, we're told. But the 256 items belonging to Turing, allegedly found by agents stashed in a leather briefcase hidden behind a removable piece of wall in her bathroom, tell a different story.
According to legal paperwork [PDF], filed in a Colorado district court this month by the Feds, she appears to have persuaded the school that she had returned Turing’s Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal by switching it with someone else's gong, and retained the original, which came complete with a message from King George VI apologizing for not being able to give the award in person.
Turing was awarded an OBE in 1946 in recognition of his extraordinary achievements during the Second World War in which he helped crack the German military's Enigma encoded messages and so change the course of the war. In 2009, the British government apologized for Turing's prosecution as a homosexual, and in 2013, the cryptanalyst was pardoned.
The agents searching Julia Turing’s house in Conifer, Colorado, had a list of suspected items, and were, it is claimed, only able to find a few of them, including several OBE medals in black boxes in her dresser drawer, copies of photographs of Turing dotted around the house, and Turing’s PhD diploma from Princeton hidden behind the dresser.
When they asked her about the other items on the list, according to the court filing, she “began looking through a box, but appeared to be distracted. She appeared to be looking toward the bathroom located on the ground floor. When it became apparent that she would not tell law enforcement officers where the items on the search warrant were located, she was escorted outside.
“Based on what law enforcement agents observed of Ms Turing’s behavior, a second search of the ground floor bathroom was conducted. During the second search of the ground floor bathroom, agents discovered a portion of the wall that was removable.
“After removing that portion of the wall, a space under the stairs was found. In the space under the stairs, an old leather briefcase was found. Next to the briefcase several compact discs marked ‘Alan Turing photographs’ and black bound diaries were located.”
Also inside the briefcase was Turing’s real OBE medal, the King’s letter, a number of school reports from Sherborne, original photographs of Turing, and a variety of other Turing miscellanea, it is claimed.
The agents swooped on February 16, 2018, and it’s not clear why it has taken nearly two years for Uncle Sam to file a civil lawsuit to formally seize the items – a forfeiture-in-rem claim in which the possessions are listed as the defendants. The 127-page legal complaint illustrates extensive research on the part of Homeland Security, including statements from Turing biographer Andrew Hodges and various Sherborne school officials as well as attempted verification of letters that Julia Turing claimed proved her ownership of the various items.
The civil case argues that those letters proving ownership are not legitimate and contains several other intriguing details. Julia Mathison Turing is her real name, but only after she legally changed it from Julie Ann Schwinghamer in 1988.
She has also gone by the names Julia Schinghomes (a misunderstanding based on poor handwriting, she claims) and Julia Elliot: names she used when visiting Turing archives at Sherborne as well as the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge, in England, where officials say they kept a close eye on her and no thefts were reported.
The same year that she changed her surname to Turing, Julia has a major falling out with her family after her sister took one of the mathematician's items and gave it to the police in the California town of Morro Bay, seemingly while Julia was enlisted in the army, it is claimed. Her mother had received a call from Sherborne several days earlier in which they demanded the release of the items, according to the court filing.
Rather than hide, Julia Turing turned up at the Morro Bay police station and demanded the return of her possessions, a situation she documents in her diaries that were found inside the same leather briefcase hidden behind the bathroom wall, we're told. The same diaries reveal her debating about sending the items back to the school in 1990, the lawsuit states, and then, somewhat bizarrely, addressing Alan Turing himself in 2012, informing him that: “A museum could find out and claim they are stolen and try to force me to give your things to them.”
According to Uncle Sam, the value of the 256 items (a number that Turing would no doubt have appreciated) is $37,775, although given interest in the famous mathematician and the fact that previous possessions of his have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, that it likely to be a significant underestimate. A wartime manuscript of notes by Alan Turing, for instance, sold for $1,025,000 in April 2015.
As the court document itself notes: “An autographed letter signed by Alan Turing sold for $136,122.00 in February 2016. A wartime manuscript of mathematical notes by Alan Turing sold for $1,025,000.00 in April 2015.”
But for Julia Turing, the items were “beyond priceless.” While trying to persuade the University of Colorado to display the items, she expressed her concern that their museum did not have a permanent security guard, and would only show copies of the items she had in her possession, claiming the originals were too valuable, Homeland Security claims.
Years after the belongings disappeared, Sherborne bursar A.W. Gallon wrote a summary of the incident for the school, which was kept in its archives along with letters Julia Turing had sent to him over the years.
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“My secretary Doreen Beaton told me there was an American lady who wanted to see the Alan Turing 'collection',” he recalled in the summary, quoted by Homeland Security. “I asked her in and she told me [she] was making a study of him. She had already been to Manchester and Cambridge Universities. I am familiar with the eccentricities of Americans but I got the impression that she has a ‘crush’ on Turing.”
Gallon even contacted the head of police in Phoenix, Arizona, where Schwinghamer, aka Turing, lived at the time to in hope sending light on the disappearance. “I gave up any hope of ever getting A.T.’s things back ‘til one day she wrote saying she was sending them back. A parcel arrived. It contained more than the Librarian had listed which made me cross. I wrote thanking her and she told me she intended to join the US Army and was training hard for the US Olympic team (track). I wished her luck and heard no more.”
After her sister handed over one of items to the cops in Morro Bay, Turing wrote to Gallon expressing her intense sorrow. “I am extremely worried about the fate of Alan’s PhD ... I have spent all day long making calls all over the nation to get help to recover his diploma," she was quoted in the court filings as penning.
"At this point I will do everything in my power to find Alan’s diploma, it means everything to me, I place my very life on it... as I have written in my diary I will take my life if Alan’s PhD cannot be returned. I have protected it with my life in the past, I have given up much for it’s safety and I will do so again if necessary.”
The court case is designed to give the US federal government the right to seize the belongings by claiming they were illegally smuggled into the United States. Presumably the intent is to then return them to the Dorset school where Alan Turing was a pupil between 1926 to 1931 while he was 13 to 18 years old. The items are right now being, er, looked after by Homeland Security in Denver, Colorado.
An archivist at Sherborne School told The Register this week that "as this matter is currently being dealt with by the appropriate US authorities" it is unable to comment, but assured us, "the Turing Archive held at Sherborne School is in safe hands and well cared for." ®