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don’t let the wish grow cold!

The apple. Such a powerful symbol, so ambiguous. Such a stylish way to make an exit.

Dip the apple in the brew.
Let the Sleeping Death seep through.

Why did this resonate with Turing? What did it mean to him? Why such a fascination with it? Temptation? Evil? An ironic eternity waiting for True Love’s Kiss? We’ll never know. As Andrew Hodges points out in his outstanding biography, “Alan Turing himself would have been fascinated by the difficulty of drawing a line between accident and suicide, a line defined only by a concept of free will.”

Snow White's apple

We forget that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a huge sensation among adults when it premiered, and was taken surprisingly seriously. (An incomplete, but not completely off-the-mark, modern comparison might be to James Cameron’s Avatar.) Attending the first feature-length cartoon released for an adult audience would have been a tremendous escape in pre-war England; Turing attended in Cambridge in 1938, soon after he had gone to work at Bletchley Park. The film was a popular topic of conversation in England, both because of the media blitz and merchandising that accompanied the film and because of the considerable debate about the impact of the horror aspects of the film on children. The demise of the Queen is still as violent a scene as it ever was.

Turing was known to repeat the witch’s couplet with glee. In 1937, before the movie was released, he intimated in a letter that he had devised a way to end his own life using an apple and some electrical wires, should he need to. When the time came, he apparently followed his plan, echoing the fairy tale. Here is an abridged account of the coroner’s inquest of 1957 from the Manchester Guardian:

“A verdict that Alan Mathison Turing (41), of Hollymead, Adlington Road, Wilmslow, committed suicide by taking poison while the balance of his mind was disturbed was returned at the inquest in Wilmslow last night. …

Police-Sergeant Cottrell said he saw Dr Turing lying in bed with the clothes pulled up towards his chest. There was a white frothy liquid about the mouth with a faint smell of bitter almonds. On a table at the side of the bed was half an apple from which several bites had been taken.

The witness said that in another room he found a cooking pan with a double container which was connected to electric wires. The contents of the pan were bubbling and there was a strong smell of bitter almonds.

Dr C.A.K. Bird, pathologist, said death was caused by asphyxia due to cyanide poisoning. A man of Dr Turing’s knowledge could not have swallowed it without knowing what would happen, and Dr Bird did not think it could have been accidental. He thought he apple was used to take away some of the taste. …” — Manchester Guardian 11 June 1957