Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter Alan Turing Wrote in “Distress” Before His Conviction For “Gross Indecency”

in History, Letters | May 5th, 2015

A pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing’s name comes up in nearly every conversation about artificial intelligence. His “Turing Test” purports to indicate whether and when a machine has acquired intelligence and ability indistinguishable from that of a human, and his work with the Bletchley Park cryptography group during WWII helped the British break the Enigma code used by the Nazis. Those who came to learn about Turing from the recent biopic The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch starring as the tormented mathematician, know this part of his life in particular, as well as the part of his life that tragically led to his early death at age 41.

Turing was gay, but forced to hide it because of British law. In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” for his relationship with another man. Before pleading guilty to the supposed offence, Turing wrote the letter below to his colleague and friend Norman Routledge. Employing a dark sense of humor and signing off “Yours in distress,” he gives every indication that he is fearful not only for himself, but for the fate of his work. Just above, see Benedict Cumberbach read the letter, which begins with a paragraph of small talk from an obviously ongoing conversation then abruptly turns to the trouble at hand.

My dear Norman,

I don’t think I really do know much about jobs, except the one I had during the war, and that certainly did not involve any travelling. I think they do take on conscripts. It certainly involved a good deal of hard thinking, but whether you’d be interested I don’t know. Philip Hall was in the same racket and on the whole, I should say, he didn’t care for it. However I am not at present in a state in which I am able to concentrate well, for reasons explained in the next paragraph.

I’ve now got myself into the kind of trouble that I have always considered to be quite a possibility for me, though I have usually rated it at about 10:1 against. I shall shortly be pleading guilty to a charge of sexual offences with a young man. The story of how it all came to be found out is a long and fascinating one, which I shall have to make into a short story one day, but haven’t the time to tell you now. No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.

Glad you enjoyed broadcast. Jefferson certainly was rather disappointing though. I’m afraid that the following syllogism may be used by some in the future.

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think

Yours in distress,


Turing had long wrestled with his sexuality, but had also long come to terms with it at the time of the letter. As the Cumberbatch-starring film dramatizes (with some license), over ten years earlier, during the war, he had attempted to marry the only female member of the main Bletchley group, Joan Clarke, then confided his sexuality to her.

Clarke was mostly nonplussed and Turing broke off the engagement. You can get much more insight about Turing’s struggle, and what he was actually like, from two of the women who worked with him, including Clarke herself in an interview above. Below, another of the Bletchley team—one of the thousands of “Bletchleyettes”—named Olive Baily discusses her impressions of Turing. To learn much more about his life, watch The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing, in two parts on Youtube.

via Letters of Note

Related Content:

Alan Turing, Brilliant Mathematician and Code Breaker, Will Be Finally Pardoned by British Government

The Enigma Machine: How Alan Turing Helped Break the Unbreakable Nazi Code

Watch Breaking the Code, About the Life & Times of Alan Turing (1996)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  1. bil says . . .
    May 5, 2015 / 3:39 am

    Is nonplussed used here in it’s traditional meaning or in the modern usage?

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