Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Alan Turing’s stolen OBE, doctorate recovered in Colorado (timescall.com)
146 points by bookmtn 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments

This tale reminded me of the Totenberg Stradivarius (also known as the Ames Stradivarius), stolen in the early 80s in Cambridge Mass. and recovered after the thief, a former conservatory student, died decades later and his wife (unaware of the provenance) tried to have it appraised (https://stringsmagazine.com/a-new-chapter-begins-in-the-tumu...). The thief kept it hidden at first, but in the 1990s and 2000s was apparently performing with it in public.

> Julia Turing isn’t related to Alan Turing, but she changed her last name from Schwinghamer in 1988, according to the complaint. A former biology teacher at the Sherborne said Julia Turing claimed she was Alan Turing’s daughter when he gave her a tour of the school.

That's pretty nutty. I wonder how often this sort of thing happens.

I feel sorry for her. It seems pretty clear she's dealing with some mental health issues.

It’s extremely odd to go through all that and then try to loan them to a library.

Touring complete!

>federal officials searched Julia Turing’s home in Conifer and recovered the items, which are valued at $37,775

I’d really love to know how this value was determined. Is this like some sort of ‘Antiques Road Show’ valuation for insurance purposes?

The real answer here, given the historical context, is probably closer to ‘priceless’.

Wow. $37,775 is an insanely low valuation - I wonder who came up with that.

If the Feds are reading this thread and are looking for a buyer, please send me a message ;)

It's probably what they were insured for in 1984 when they were originally stolen. I have to think they're much more valuable now, given the past 10 years or so of history.

Turing’s rehabilitation actually started in the late ‘90s in England, through plays and memorials like the one in Manchester (2001). So it’s more like “20 years or so”.

It could be someone who doesn't get nerd/tech culture. Christie's valued some Star Trek memorabilia at $30k, it ended up selling for $500k.

Yeah, I could imagine some of the SV mega rich would easily pay an order of magnitude more. Personally if I had the money I'd feature them prominently in a monument dedicated to the irony of fighting a war to keep a large part of the world "free" only to emerge into the narrowly constrained post-war social freedom

Miss Schwinghamer does not sound like she is sound of mind.

slg 28 days ago [flagged]

Even beyond the comment on her mental state, this is an unnecessarily condescending comment. It both refers to her with a name she no longer uses and assumes a marital status when none is ever implied. The decent way to refer to her would be Ms. Turing. Believing she isn't of sound mind should be an even stronger reason to afford her this tiny kindness of respect.

She legally changed her last name to Turing, claimed she was his daughter despite being of no relation, and stole Turing's possessions thereby endangering his legacy. What sort of kindness and respect does this warrant? I don't think the comment violates HN standards, is civil enough and more importantly quite appropriate considering the crime.

People have a right to be called what they want. You even admit she legally changed her name so why not use it? The motivations around her desired name are of no concern to any of us.

Intentionally refusing to refer to someone by their chosen name is wrong whether that name is Muhammad Ali, Chelsea Manning, or Julia Turing. I have certainly seen comments flagged on HN for inappropriateness when they refuse to refer to Manning by her chosen name.

Julia Turing changed her name in order to commit fraud. Chelsea Manning changed her name because she was transgender. You seem to be ignoring context in order to make some kind of misguided point.

Are you trying to "gotcha" people who argue for trans rights?

The items were stolen in 1984 and she changed her name in 1988. It also sounds like the stolen items were accessible to the public and the claim of being Alan's daughter was not done for any financial benefit. It doesn't appear that any fraud was even attempted.

I am arguing for people to be in control of their own identity. It doesn't matter whether the reason for the change is due to gender like Manning, religion like Ali, or for someone unknown reason like Turing.

I’m happy to call this woman Ms. Turing, but I don’t understand why you are defending her actions, other than the name change.

In no way, does it ‘sound like’ the items were accessible to the public. From the article,

> A former biology teacher at the Sherborne said Julia Turing claimed she was Alan Turing’s daughter when he gave her a tour of the school.

So, while her name was not legally Turing yet, it sounds like the good professor rolled out the red carpet for her, based on who he believed her to be. It’s very certain fraud was attempted, and also successful.

It says these items were tucked away somewhere in ‘a wooden box in a laboratory’, not sitting in the library in the open for anyone to pick up and look at.

Therefore, I don’t think the reason for the name change is unknown in the case of Ms. Turing. I think it is reasonable to surmise that she believed it would be in her best interest to to acquire the last name, that helped her commit the crime 4 years prior.

I'm not defending her actions. I am defending her right to control her own identity. Committing a crime doesn't result in a person forfeiting all their basic rights.

Also "a wooden box in a laboratory" doesn't exactly sound like something that is under lock and key with access limited to next of kin. If access to these items was truly so limited, their theft would have been pinned on Turing immediately. In addition, I don't see what benefit she could possibly have received in changing her name four years after the theft. If anything it would further endanger her by linking her legal name to the one she gave the people at Sherborne.

I’m so dumb. Forgive me, this is clearly a case of the IoB


Sorry, I suspected you were being disingenuous but it seems you were not.

Thanks, I am being completely genuine. Complying with people's wishes in this regard takes no more effort than ignoring their requests, so it just gets on my nerves when people refuse to do it.

I don't mind people legally changing their names, but I don't believe it induces an obligation on other citizens.

Just as the author of "Animal Farm" is not obliged to state clearly and exactly the legal names of the people his characters represent, and we all know who they represent.

Would you have a similar objection if the root comment factually referred to "The woman previously called Miss Schwinghamer"? or would that factual reference still not be good enough for you?

  People have a right to be called what they want
No. We can chose to make them happy when what they want is reasonable, but they have no right to force other people to use the name they want, specially when they abuse the legal system to create confusion and make a crime.

How is it a right to be called what one chooses?

I don't think I should have to participate in someone else's reality if I don't want to, just like they're not obliged to interact with me in the way I demand. It's always nice when they do, but I don't think people have a special right to dictate these kinds of terms to other people. I think this is especially true when the person being discussed will never see this conversation.

Name changes are governed by the states so laws vary. However speaking generally, people in the US have the right to change their name for whatever reason they see fit.

You have freedom of speech and don't have to abide by their request. This leads back to my original comment. It is a act of kindness to abide by people's wishes when it requires no extra effort on your part and actively refusing to do it is at best condescending.

> and actively refusing to do it is at best condescending.

In this case, it adds confusion to the circumstances of a crime.

Not participating in someone's alternate universe where she is the daughter of Alan Turing is not "condescending" - it's healthy.

Hi gls, I agree with you that people can change their name in a way recognised in most countries. I'm not sure that their government-registered name (changed since birth or not) has any bearing on what people 'have to' or do call them though? What do you think, gls?

We would likely all agree that seizing these stolen items back is the right decision, but I think it does raise an interesting question. Can a stolen item be possessed long enough for the person or entity in possession of it to rightfully be considered the owner? There are countless museum collections around the globe that are made up of mostly stolen material. At one extreme you have ancient artifacts that were taken by colonial era archaeologists. Does the British Museum have an obligation to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece? What about items that were stolen less than a human lifetime ago? There have been plenty of examples of art stolen by the Nazis that both have and have not been returned to the rightful owners. There doesn't appear to be any consensus on this issue which results in every case resulting in its own negotiation.

EDIT: I'm a little confused why this is being downvoted. Is it because of the belief that the stolen items should always belong the the original owner? I agree with that in a theoretical sense, but I was just commenting on the fact that this isn't how things operate in practice and seemingly few governments actually hold anyone to that ethical standard.

IANAL, but I believe the concept you're talking about is called "adverse possession," and that it's complicated.

Some say yes, the British Museum should return its fruits of conquest, and other museums have indeed repatriated stolen artifacts. Heck, one recent example involves the owner of Hobby Lobby: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobby_Lobby_smuggling_scandal

The technical term for recognized squatters rights, for instance, is "prescription by adverse possession" or "prescription by good-faith possession". (Obviously varies some by jurisdiction.) The difference is that the law in most places recognizes fault vs no-fault of the possessor, and so the requirements for legal ownership are different, usually about 10 years vs 30 years of possession.

Movable property is much more varied and complicated.

Adverse possession is a doctrine which exclusively applies to real property, i.e., land, and is therefore inapplicable here.

> Can a stolen item be possessed long enough for the person or entity in possession of it to rightfully be considered the owner?

A true owner can recover a stolen item from a thief who still has possession. However, if the thief sells the item to a bona fide purchaser (i.e., one who pays fair market value without knowing or having reason to know that the item was stolen), then the bona fide purchaser receives superior title to the item than that of the prior owner. So, the prior owner cannot force a court to transfer the item to him and is limited to attempting to recover the value from the thief. The idea here is that the bona fide purchaser did nothing wrong, so he should not end up the loser in the deal.

Generally the consensus on art stolen by the Nazis, both legal and moral, is that it should be returned; when pieces are found, the original owners usually go to court and get massive public sympathy even when they don't win the case.

The case of art stolen during the colonial period, e.g. the Elgin Marbles, seems to mostly be argued on pragmatic grounds, such as by saying that a mass return of all plundered art would empty out the largest museums in the world. I find this... morally unconvincing, to say the least.

There is an argument for conservation that is hard to dismiss. A lot of artefacts were found in countries that are currently unstable or otherwise struggle to care appropriately even for what they already hold. Repatriating everything would likely mean, in most cases, a reduction of publicly-available material (as more stuff is simply removed from view due to lack of funds), and at worst destruction or loss (Syria being the most famous example, but even Greece during the crisis was reportedly considering selling a lot of their artefacts).

As much as I’d like the Louvre gutted of its looted contents, I am pretty sure that returning yet another Leonardo painting to Italy or yet another marble statue to Greece, will just satisfy the basest nationalist instincts (which will probably move on to some other complaint a minute later) while impoverishing the global public.

I agree morally, but legally it doesn't appear as cut and dry as you imply. Earlier this month there was a NYT article [1] about artwork looted by the Nazis that is currently held in Polish musuems and The Culture Ministry of Poland responded [2] with an argument against the return.

[1] - https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/12/arts/design/poland-nazi-l...

[2] - https://polandin.com/46197504/polish-ministry-of-culture-rej...

They seized his diploma, maybe? I don't see how a degree can be seized.

Title misleading. Should be “Feds seize Alan Turing’s stolen doctorate, knighthood medal after being offered to CU Boulder”.

I had no idea they were stolen in the first place

Yeah, that's an extremely misleading title. They could even say "recover" instead of "seize". The title as written makes it sound like they were wrongfully seized.

Not only that, but also: "He died by poisoning in 1954."

No account of the motive of his poisoning, or his prosecution. When activists protest against erasure, this is what they're talking about.

The motive for his poisoning is unknown. Some people speculate it was suicide brought on by his indecency conviction, but this isn't anywhere near as certain as its often presented, and there's at least as strong an argument it was simply an accident. "Died by poisoning", on the other hand, is certainly true.

> there's at least as strong an argument it was simply an accident

I don't mean this in a passive-aggressive way, but can you link me to any good sources on this? The most authoritative-seeming ones I've read lean pretty heavily on the side of suicide, with the alternative case presented mostly as wishful thinking on the part of his grieving mother.

edit: the particular source I had in mind was the Hodges biography; other sources may have largely been relying on Hodges. And to partially answer my own question, an NYRB article[0] points me to a newer biography[1] which is apparently much more open to the possibility of accidental death (or even murder, though more in a 'can't rule it out' sort of way)[2].

[0] https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2014/12/19/poor-imitation-alan...

[1] https://global.oup.com/academic/product/turing-9780198719182...

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18561092

I got it from Hodges book ("Alan Turning: The Enigma"). Hodges actually comes to the opposite conclusion, that Turing's death was likely a suicide. But he does a fair enough presentation of both sides of the issue that I walked away thinking an accident was most likely.

To be clear, there's no definitive evidence either way. Reasonable people can differ in which version they find more plausible. But I think the extent to which a lot of people tell it as certainly being a suicide (and certainly being due to anger over his unjust conviction, he could've committed suicide for unrelated reasons!) is distorting the issue.

Jack Copeland is another who argues against suicide:


But that being said, the coroner’s inquest at the time ruled it a suicide. So we can speculate that they got it wrong, and we can suggest that today we may or may not come to a different conclusion, e.g. “Death by Misadventure”.

But until someone gets that ruling overturned, it seems to me that the appropriate way to describe his death in a journalistic context is to either say nothing (Died in 1954), go along with the official verdict (Committed suicide in 1954), or mention the official verdict and that there are some dissenting views (Died in 1954 by what was ruled a suicide at the time, however some historians now question the finding.)

I feel it’s inappropriate to say “poisoned,” while saying nothing about the ruling at the time, which has not yet been conclusively overturned.

I find the arguments against suicide reasonable, but it’s not like anyone has a conclusive bit of hard evidence that it wasn’t suicide. So it seem to me that if the manner of his death is to be mentioned, the official verdict should be mentioned.

> So we can speculate that they got it wrong, and we can suggest that today we may or may not come to a different conclusion, e.g. “Death by Misadventure”.

At the time suicide in England was a crime and coroners needed to prove that the deceased i) did something to end their life and ii) had the intention of ending their life, and they needed to prove that to the criminal standard, ie "beyond all reasonable doubt".

Suicide stopped being a crime in England in 1961. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/9-10/60

The burden of proof changed from "beyond all reasonable doubt" to "balance of probabilities" after the Maughan cases in 2018/2019.

Maughan case appeal: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2018/1955.html

Maughan case next appeal: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2019/809.html

It would be easier, not harder, for a coroner today to come to a conclusion of suicide.

[from the BBC article] >Prof Copeland emphasises, a coroner these days would demand evidence of pre-meditation before announcing a verdict of suicide,

I'm not sure that's true. Evidence of pre-meditation makes a conclusion of suicide easier, but it isn't required.

There are a lot of misconceptions about suicide, especially about how suicidal people behave. These examples from the BBC article are the kinds of things that seem important but which actually aren't:

> 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.

The paradox of good mood before self-inflicted death has a few possible explanations. Imagine a person in severe emotional distress. They can't see any way out, and they can't see how their future will work. They decide on a plan to end their life. For that person, at that moment, this is a solution to their problems. They now have something to work towards; they now have a way out.

There are people who dispute Prof Copeland's comments. From what I've read of Copeland's comments he doesn't understand suicidality; he got some facts about the case wrong; and he doesn't understand coroners.

I find this response more persuasive: https://www.turingfilm.com/turing-suicide

I honestly have no opinion on the matter, and I no longer think it’s important. I don’t need to think he committed suicide to believe that his (and everybody else’s) persecution for homosexuality was a massive injustice. It doesn’t make him a more romantic or dramatic figure to me, the rest of his life was already wildly romantic and dramatic.

So I guess when I say that an argument is “reasonable,” what I’m really saying is, “I get where that person is coming from, and I don’t think they’re unhinged for thinking what they think, or for saying what they say.”

But that doesn’t mean I hold the same views. And without checking everything you’re saying, It seems reasonable too.

Lots of people don’t understand suicide, I don’t think we understand much about mood disorders or suicide (and for that matter, not all suicide is related to mood disorders! Lumping the two together reflexively is probably a sign that I don’t understand suicide either.)

Anyhow, this I do believe: If we can speculate that “Today, we would likely come to a determination of X instead of Y given the evidence,” we can also speculate that today, we’d have much, much better evidence.

And even better, if Alan Turing did commit suicide, and if he was motivated by his persecution, well then, today he would not have been persecuted to begin with. And if he had some mood issues for other reasons, well, while our society is still deeply flawed in this area, it’s still much, much better than it was in the 1950s.

Regardless of what actually happened, the larger story of our social progress around homosexuality and inclusion of atypical people——whether socially or neurologically atypical—- is the thing that matters, and his life’s story forms a part of that progress no matter what exactly happened to end it.

Fair enough -- and I think I had my own similar doubts when reading, but ultimately deferred to Hodges' authority and assumed he was quite likely to be correct. I'm interested to look at the Copeland biography now (see my edit, which might not have been up when you began to respond) -- presumably he found no new hard evidence, but he did conduct his own interviews with people who knew Turing.

Requisite mention: Turing & Burroughs, by Rudy Rucker.

His suicide has not been conclusively proven (as was probably his intention) so a news article about his personal effects isn’t really the right place to discuss the broader context.

The last article I read about him was the government apologizing for being shitty to him.


This is a huge milestone in the history of LGBT people in the UK, so it's hard to imagine that it's not worth mentioning in any article about him.

But aren't his possessions valued because of his accomplishments in computer science rather than because he was gay and prosecuted for it?

Arguably, it's both now. He is both a legend to computer scientists and to folks in the LGBT community.

It also touches a nerve since in the past Turing's gayness is always whitewashed by the news. Why still do it? Especially when it was so important to who he was and specifically why we died.

Being gay is very important to most gay people. They don't become famous for that. He's famous for his science. The gay aspect of his life is an interesting interlude for us (not for him mind you).

Like many people, there are multiple reasons to value his life highly.

This isn't a biography of Turing doing that. It doesn't seem particularly relevant for an article about some documents.

If the method of death is going to be brought up, the context is relevant. I would agree with you if all they did was list the year of death. But once they say "poisoning", they leave entirely too many unanswered questions for readers.

I think that's probably poor writing rather than anything malicious, but perhaps you're (or parent comment is) right.

It looks like the hand of an editor to me. The writer wrote "Alan Turing, who died after consuming poison in an apparent suicide in 1954...". The editor told him "we do not editorialize or speculate in this newspaper, stick to the facts" and it got rewritten. Of course, it should just read "Alan Turing, who died in 1954...".

It's not a fact that he's the exemplar of a law forgiving everyone ever convicted for being gay in the UK?


That's 1) editorializing, since the act isn't officially called that, 2) not what I speculated the original copy said and 3) needlessly political.

And before you tell me "gay rights aren't a political issue, human rights go beyond politics": a new law being passed by politicians is literally as political a subject as it gets.

Huh. The way I remember it, the government first only forgave him, and then after a huge public debate decided to forgive everyone in similar circumstances.

But if you think that's editorial and political if mentioned at all, despite being endorsed by all sides of the parliament, I guess that's a valid opinion. It's certainly the case that many people claim that anything objected to by a single person is political. I usually find that the BBC is more clever than that.

It's weird to specifically note the poisoning angle without going into more depth - just stating "he died in 1954" would be one thing, but the author appeared to cherry pick a relatively minor note about his death for a quick synopsis over much more relevant points.

It was a bit odd that the reporter seemed to see nothing odd about Julia Turing claiming to be his daughter.

It's like saying "he was killed in 1954" about someone wrongfully executed by the government.

One line summary:

The items were offered in 2018 to the library University of Colorado at Boulder, by this weird woman who had apparently stolen the items in 1984, then changed her last name to Turing in 1988.

> recovered ... Turing’s doctoral degree

I find this phrasing a bit surprising, but maybe I can learn something about words here.

I've only ever heard "degree" used as an intangible noun, to refer to the achievement or title or whatever you want to call it.

Is it common to use it to refer to a physical object? Is it an informal way of saying diploma? Maybe a British way of saying diploma? I made some brief checks of online dictionaries and couldn't find that usage.

While I think technically incorrect, I often see "degree" used to refer to the physical certificate (diploma) as well. Perhaps in part because there is a feeling that a "diploma" is something conferred by high schools, since they typically don't use the term "degree" but do use the term "diploma".

I'm British, sounds unnatural to me too. I would have said 'degree certificate' (assuming that's what it is) though, not 'diploma'.

A 'diploma' to me is a 'degree-equivalent' (as determined by government; not, perhaps, by employers) qualification offered by non-universities.

Also British; have degree "under my belt", have degree certificate; in a folder somewhere.

As you said, you can't sieze someone's degree, at best you can invalidate it.

But Turing didn't have a knighthood.

That's right, he was an OBE. They probably do get the difference and just using this colloquially.

I've never heard anyone use "knighthood" to colloquially describe lesser Commonwealth honours. (Here in Australia, certainly, we've gone back and forth on whether we have knighthoods, and when the Abbott Government briefly reintroduced knighthoods a few years ago it was a huge deal - and very distinct from other grades of honours.)

The journalist is American, presumably, and the US doesn't have direct equivalents to the hierarchical orders that Commonwealth countries have, so maybe they just assume that knighthood means something much broader than it does.

The colloquial (blasé) term is 'gong'.

'Nobody' calls the non-knighthood honours (nor the order as a whole) 'knighthoods'.

The author made a few pretty sloppy mistakes, sadly.

This journalist does understand what being an officer of the Order of the British Empire means.

It's a small-town publication in the US. Honestly, the distinctions of British frippery hold little meaning outside of the Commonwealth.

> British frippery

It is one of the highest awards of state.

the British state

What makes you say that, given the errors in title and body of the article?

An obe isn't a knighthood

You're right. Only the two most senior ranks of the Order of the British Empire entail knighthood (and the formal title Sir or Dame).

Not that it really matters in this case but it's imprecise.

Not sure it really matters? The name & his thinking is famous...but the doctorate is well just a piece of paper really.

This is true of many things. The original US Constitution, and Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta (do we even still have that?), the dead sea scrolls, etc. And yet people value these things. Something being "just a piece of paper" doesn't really affect its value one way or the other.

> the Magna Carta (do we even still have that?)

Yes. It was actually issued multiple times (with slightly different wording), and each issue was in multiple copies. The most famous is the original of 1215 of which four copies survive (all in England).

I've seen the manuscript of the 1297 issue which is on display at the Australian Parliament. Another manuscript of the 1297 issue is on display at the US National Archives. I think those are the only two manuscripts outside the UK; there are a dozen or more manuscripts surviving at various locations in England.

Julius Mathison Turing was Alan Turing's father. Julia Mathison Turing lives in Colorado and sells Turing-related artwork on eBay. It's nice: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Alan-M-Turing-by-Julia-M-Turing-Art...

I hope they aren't too harsh on her.

> I hope they aren't too harsh on her.

According to the article she stole a dead man's medal from a school and then vanished it out of the country where it is of national importance. Seems like a pretty rotten thing for her to do and something we need to discourage, right?

> Julia Turing isn’t related to Alan Turing, but she changed her last name from Schwinghamer in 1988, according to the complaint.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2020

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact