An all-boys boarding school in the United Kingdom on Tuesday welcomed back a collection of stolen mementos that once belonged to Alan Turing, the famed mathematician known for cracking German codes during World War II.
United States government officials, during a repatriation ceremony at the Sherbourne School in southern England, formally handed back Turing’s 1938 Princeton University Ph.D. diploma in mathematics, an Order of the British Empire medal and a letter from King George VI, among a host of other objects.
The momentous return comes more than five years after U.S. authorities seized the keepsakes from a Colorado woman who claimed Turing as her father. The woman, who even changed her last name to Turing, had no relation to the legendary British codebreaker, but became obsessed with him over the course of her life.
“Few people have had a greater positive impact upon the world than Alan Turing,” said Sherborne headmaster and CEO, Dr. Dominic Luckett, in a statement. “As a school, we are intensely proud of our association with Alan Turing and want to do all we can to preserve and promote his legacy. As part of that, we take very seriously our responsibility to look after those items in our archives which relate to his time at Sherborne School and his subsequent life and work.”
Tuesday’s ceremony capped nearly four decades of bizarre twists and turns for Turing’s memorabilia.
In January 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security received a tip that an individual had offered the University of Colorado Boulder historical artifacts from Turing’s collection.
Julia Mathison Turing, a Conifer resident, told the school that Alan was her relative and wanted to loan the pieces for display. But school officials, during their research, learned that Julia had stolen the objects in 1984 from the Sherbourne School.
Investigators say Julia Turing — formerly Julia Schwinghamer — contacted the British boarding school that year, saying she was conducting a study of Alan Turing. During a tour of the school, she swiped the memorabilia, leaving only a note inside the wooden box.
“Please forgive me for taking these materials into my possession,” Julia Turing wrote, according to a 2020 forfeiture complaint filed in federal court. “They will be well taken care of while under the care of my hands and shall one day all be returned to this spot.”
On Feb. 16, 2018, federal agents served a search warrant at Turing’s Conifer home. Authorities found the Princeton diploma sitting behind a dresser and located copies of Alan Turing’s photographs and school reports throughout the home.
Agents then discovered a portion of the bathroom wall could be removed, revealing a space under the stairs. There they found an old leather briefcase containing the Order of the British Empire medal, emblazoned with “For God and the Empire” inside a gilded black box.
The letter from King George VI accompanied the medal.
“I greatly regret that I am unable to give you personally the award which you have so well earned,” the monarch wrote on Buckingham Palace letterhead. “I now send it to you with my congratulations and my best wishes for your future happiness.”
During an October 2020 court appearance, Julia Turing called the mathematician a “beautiful man of the finest order.”
“I am giving up my collection to be handed over to England because I do not want to keep anything from England against their will out of selfishness,” she said.
Julia Turing couldn’t be reached for comment. She told Westword in 2021 that she was drawn to Alan Turing as a child after reading about him in her local library. Julia even took up track and field as an homage to the British hero, who was also an accomplished marathoner. Over the years, her love for him grew. Alan, she told Westword, “saved my life.”
“The moment I saw his face, it was like I knew him,” Turing told the magazine. “It was an odd feeling of extreme familiarity.”
In April 2021, the government and Julia Turing settled the case, with the Coloradan agreeing to return the objects.
Turing’s nephew, after the seizure, told the BBC that there is precious little left from his uncle.
“To find out that items that were squirreled away in mysterious circumstances, by someone who had no right to them and kept them out of the public realm, and for them now to be returned is a really positive and good thing,” Sir Dermot Turing told the news station.
Turing’s story gained worldwide popularity after Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar-nominated portrayal in the 2014 blockbuster, “The Imitation Game.”
He’s been called the progenitor of modern computing and one of the most influential codebreakers during World War II. Historians say the intelligence from Turing’s work helped the Allied forces overcome the vaunted Nazi army and its once-unbreakable “Enigma” code. From mid-1940, Allied officials, through Turing’s skills, were able to read German air force signals.
But he died a criminal in 1954, having been convicted under British indecency laws for his homosexuality and forced to undergo chemical castration.
The British government, only decades later, apologized for Turing’s treatment and granted him a royal pardon. In 2021, the Bank of England unveiled a £50 banknote with the mathematician’s face, saying he embodied the “spirit of the nation.”