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Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini: From an upper class life on Merrion Square to the mental asylum and what if she had succeeded. Photo by: Library of Congress.

Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini: From an upper class life on Merrion Square to the mental asylum and what if she had succeeded. Photo by: Library of Congress.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

At 10.58am on Wednesday April 7 1926, Benito Mussolini paused to salute an ecstatic crowd in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. As a group of students broke into song, he cocked his head in their direction. At that moment, a slight, bespectacled, shabby woman, standing less than a foot away, took aim and shot him at point-blank range. The first bullet grazed Il Duce’s nose, releasing a spectacular torrent of blood; the second jammed in the pistol chamber.

After the shooting Mussolini, was still alive because he turned his head just as Violet fired, set out for a triumphal visit to Libya with a sticking plaster on his nose. Meanwhile Violet was half-lynched, then dragged, badly battered, into a room containing the colossal marble foot of the Emperor Constantine, there to be revived with brandy before being dispatched to prison. It was the end of her life in the world.

In 1926, at the time of their bathetic encounter, Mussolini was a splendid figure of a man who liked to display his muscled torso shirtless. Violet was tiny (5ft 1in, and emaciated), unmarried and not much loved, 50 years old but looking 60, and odd enough in her behaviour to have been twice admitted to sanatoria for the mentally ill.

The Honourable Violet Gibson, who believed she was acting on God’s orders, had just come closer than anyone else to assassinating Mussolini. She had, as she would later boast, shaped history that morning – though not in the way she would have liked. Public sympathy and admiration for the “saintly” statesman exploded in the wake of her attack, one of four attempts made on his life in less than a year.

In fact, Gibson had a remarkable escape from the mob’s fury: when Anteo Zamboni, aged 15, fired his automatic revolver at Mussolini a few months later in Bologna, he was immediately lynched, strangled, knifed and shot.

But why on earth would an Anglo-Irish aristocrat set out to kill Mussolini, especially at this point? Before his invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, the Italian leader was feted by most of the British press and idolised by the ruling class. Evidence of his brutality, extravagance and instability was politely ignored.

Could Violet Gibson, the 50-year-old daughter of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, be the instrument of an international conspiracy to thwart Fascism? Or had she acted as a lone madwoman? No one in Britain or Italy appears to have entertained the idea that she might have been at once politically engaged and mentally unhinged – perhaps because such a theory would have reflected badly on the character of Il Duce himself.

Like Mussolini, Gibson had a fraught, violent and contradictory past. Physically fragile, impatient of restraint, determined and self-absorbed, she was born into a Protestant, Unionist family but grew up to embrace Irish nationalism. She converted to Christian Science, then to Theosophy – a concoction of metaphysics, weird science, feminism and socialism – before finally becoming a Catholic at 26. Throughout her adult life, she took her pursuit of religious truth and her development of a social conscience with deadly seriousness. Her particular brand of progressive, democratic Catholicism, as she understood it, did not rule out killing. Indeed, she repeatedly threatened to attack the Pope – to her mind, another totalitarian dictator who had betrayed her darling Italy. A year before the attempt on Mussolini, hoping to die “for the glory of God,” she shot herself in the left side of the chest, but somehow contrived to miss her heart; the bullet lodged in her shoulder blade.

1926, Benito Mussolini, 1883-1945. After the shooting Mussolini, was still alive because he turned his head just as Violet fired, set out for a triumphal visit to Libya with a sticking plaster on his nose.

1926, Benito Mussolini, 1883-1945. After the shooting Mussolini, was still alive because he turned his head just as Violet fired, set out for a triumphal visit to Libya with a sticking plaster on his nose.

When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, everyone except her thought it was a crazy thing to do. The ensuing debate was to determine whether she was certifiably crazy or not. Death and illness were themes of her life and perhaps fertilized the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.

Born the seventh of eight children as the Victorian era was starting to wind down, Gibson had an enviable life.  Her father was Lord Ashbourne, the lord chancellor of Ireland, a protestant. Her father’s title bestowed on her the title of Honorable. The Gibsons split their time between London and Dublin, participating fully in the parties, concerts and galas of the elite.  At age 18 the Honorable Violet Gibson was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.

Being sick consumed a lot of her youth and as a result she was quite frail.  She had scarlet fever when she was five, peritonitis at 14, pleurisy at 16 and rubella at 20.  She displayed a violent temper early on.

Lady Ashbourne, Gibson’s mother, became a Christian Scientist with the expectation that Mary Baker Eddy’s religion would bring her into stronger health.  Gibson tried it out, but in her early 20s, switched to Theosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky.  She was attracted to its mission to build a universal brotherhood without discrimination of any kind. Then at 26 years old, Gibson followed her brother Willie’s lead and converted to Catholicism.  Their father expressed great disappointment at this decision, and it became a wedge in their relationship.

Gibson started receiving a private income from her father at age 21, which allowed her to be independent.  In 1905 there were several deaths in the family, and her father’s term as the lord chancellor was up.  Gibson dealt with so much loss by moving to Chelsea, an artsy section of London.  She explored a bawdier side of life and became engaged to an artist at age 32.  One year later he died suddenly and Gibson had another death to grieve.

Dark deed: The Honourable Violet Gibson belived killing Mussolini was her destiny.

Dark deed: The Honourable Violet Gibson believed killing Mussolini was her destiny.

Evil allies: Mussolini with fellow fascist dictator Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1940.

Evil allies: Mussolini with fellow fascist dictator Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1940.

JUN 10 1940 Italy declares war on Britain and France.

JUN 10 1940 Italy declares war on Britain and France.

Six times within the next year Gibson became ill with the “fever.”  The only diagnosis the doctors could offer was influenza or a nervous disorder called “hysteria.”

In 1913, Gibson’s father died, and she tried to cope by fleeing to Paris where she worked for pacifist organizations.  Later that year she contracted Paget’s disease, a type of cancer, and had a left mastectomy which left a nine-inch scar across her chest.  She worked hard as a peace activist until she fell sick again and went back to England.  At age 40 she had surgery for appendicitis and peritonitis.  Unfortunately, the surgery was not successful and she suffered from chronic abdominal pain for the rest of her life.

While she was recovering, Gibson became a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope. This is when she started grappling with the notion of killing and martyrdom, perhaps inspired by experiencing so much death.  In her notebook she had a quote from Pope:  “The degree of holiness depends on the degree of mortification.  Mortification means putting to death.”

In 1922, Gibson had to deal yet again with a death in the family: her brother Victor who was her favorite sibling.  This was more than she could bear.  One month later, at age 46, Gibson had a nervous breakdown.  She was pronounced insane and committed to a mental institution.

Two years later, Gibson was released and went to Rome accompanied by a nurse, Mary McGrath.  They took up residence in a convent in a working class neighborhood with a high crime rate.  Her crisis of conscience was growing as she became more and more convinced that killing was the sacrifice that God was asking of her.  Somehow she got possession of a gun.

On February 27, 1925 Gibson went to her room, read the Bible and then shot herself in the chest.  The bullet missed her heart, went through her ribcage and lodged in her shoulder. She told McGrath that she wanted to die for God.  Had she been successful, she wouldn’t have had to endure the grief of the death of her mother in March 1926, one month before the Mussolini assassination attempt.

On Wednesday, April 7, 1926 Gibson left the convent after breakfast. In her right pocket she had a Lebel revolver wrapped in a black veil, and in her left pocket she carried a rock in case she had to break a windshield to get to Mussolini.  She also clutched the address of the Fascist Party headquarters written on a scrap of envelope.  She had read in the newspaper that Mussolini would be there in the afternoon.

Mussolini appeared as if on cue, walking through the Palazzo del Littorio, soaking in the praise of the crowd as they shouted, “Viva Il Duce!”  He stopped about a foot from where Gibson was standing.  Just before the gun went off, Mussolini leaned his head back to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration, and the bullet grazed his nose.  Gibson shot again, but the gun misfired.  There was blood pouring down Mussolini’s face, and he staggered backwards but managed to stay standing.

Mussolini maintained his composure and consoled the crowd saying, “Don’t be afraid. This is a mere trifle.” Gibson was immediately captured and beaten by the crowd, and the police got control of the situation and took her off just before she succumbed to vigilante justice.

In prison, when Gibson was undergoing interrogation, she admitted that she shot Mussolini to glorify God.  She said God’s message to her was clear, and that he had sent an angel to keep her arm steady as she took aim.

Gibson’s family, wary of the impact that her actions could have on their reputation and afraid for her future, sent letters of apology to the Italian government and congratulated Mussolini on his escape from death.

The fate of Violet Gibson was not clear.  Her punishment hinged on whether she would stand trial as a political criminal or be declared insane.  A violent reaction to a note given to her by another inmate that read “Viva Mussolini” did not help convince the authorities of her stability. In contrast, her conversations were rational and her correspondence was lucid and thoughtful.

Gibson had to endure a gruelling regime of tests.  In addition to a full medical exam, she was subjected to 20 days of psychiatric exams. She hoped to gain her release by convincing the doctors that she was mad.  Four months after the assassination attempt, a 61 page report declared Gibson as a “chronic paranoia” and recommended she be committed to a lunatic asylum.

To complete Gibson’s profile, the investigating magistrate wanted to create a psychosexual portrait.  She was considered abnormal because she never expressed an inclination to start a family. It was a common belief that a woman’s mental state could be affected by repressed sexuality. A complete gynecological examination was ordered.  No abnormalities were found, but her independence, violent anger and self mutilation were enough evidence to declare her insane and not to try Gibson as a political criminal.

Gibson was released to the custody of her sister to return to England. She was committed to St. Andrews Hospital, a renowned mental institution. Her behaviour was generally manageable, but each year when April rolled around she exhibited her violent tendencies.

In the asylum, Violet Gibson finds her voice. She spent the rest of her life in the institution, battling to be released, writing letters that were never posted.

There were so many letters, lots of them, to her family, to Winston Churchill, to Princess Elizabeth. It is the final pathos that these letters were never posted. In them she proposes plans for the ­betterment of the world – plans almost as grandiose and ill founded as those of the man she tried to kill. Violet’s lonely life was poignantly inconsequential: Mussolini’s was full of world-historical bluster. Violet failed to kill two people. Mussolini caused million of deaths.

On April 2, 1930, she was found with a noose around her neck made of scrapes of cloth she had been collecting. A nurse found her and loosened the rope. Gibson was unconscious but still alive. In January 1951, Gibson suffered from a high fever. She was down to 84 pounds.  She managed to hang on for a few more years, and finally, on May 2, 1956, Violet Gibson died. No one attended her burial.

If only Gibson had been a better shot, she might have influenced the course of the Second World War. Worst of all, Violet’s assassination attempt triggered a wave of popular support for Mussolini and a raft of oppressive legislation. So her actions probably strengthened Il Duce’s grip on Italy.

She spent more than two decades of confinement in the same asylum that had received the poet John Clare in 1842 and where James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, spent the last 30 years of her life. Her grave is a few feet away from Lucia’s. Gibson had asked to be laid to rest elsewhere, in the Catholic part of the cemetery; but in death, as in life, she was misplaced.

1926, Benito Mussolini, 1883-1945, who assumed dictatorial powers in Italy in 1925, pictured after surviving an assassination attempt on his life, a bullet grazing his nose.

1926, Benito Mussolini, 1883-1945, who assumed dictatorial powers in Italy in 1925, pictured after surviving an assassination attempt on his life, a bullet grazing his nose.

Benito Mussolini served as Italy’s 40th Prime Minister from 1922 until 1943. He is considered a central figure in the creation of Fascism and was both an influence on and close ally of Adolf Hitler during World War II. In 1943, Mussolini was replaced as Prime Minister and served as the head of the Italian Social Republic until his execution by Italian partisans in 1945.

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The Woman Who Shot Mussolini – New Statesman


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