The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
Four people tried to assassinate Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Only one person ever came close – her name was Violet Gibson and she was Irish. Violet spent the rest of her life in mental institutions, forgotten by society and by history.
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.
Violet Gibson shot two people at point-blank range, herself and Benito Mussolini. Both survived. After the first (attempted-suicidal) shooting, Violet, alive because the bullet had bounced off a rib, lived quietly in a convent in Rome, doing jigsaws with her Irish maid, until the day she set off for the Capitol with a gun in her pocket. After the second shooting Mussolini, 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 Emperor Constantine, there to be revived with brandy before being dispatched to prison. It was the end of her life in the world.
When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, the bullet missed Mussolini’s bald head but removed part of his nose, 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 fertilised the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.
If she had hit her target Mussolini’s reign as the “strongman” would have ended and his successes could not have emboldened Adolf Hitler. Il Duce’s legacy is still felt in Italy (his granddaughter Alessandra is a Member of the European Parliament) and in Greece, the Golden Dawn proclaim themselves fans of the fascist leader.
What’s worse is that Gibson’s attempted assassination triggered a wave of support for Il Duce which possibly helped strengthen his grip on Italy.
Her upbringing was one of privilege. Her father was made 1st Baron Ashbourne and went on to serve as Lord High Chancellor of Ireland from 1885 to 1905. She grew up dividing her time between Dublin and London and at the age of 18 was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.
It was noted, however, that as a child Gibson was often sick with scarlet fever, pleurisy, bouts of ill-defined “hysteria” and that she had a “violent temper.” During her younger years she also showed an interest in Christian Science and then theosophy, but at the age of 26, in 1902, she converted to Catholicism.
By 1913 Gibson had been married, to an artist, and widowed. She then moved to Paris and worked for pacifist organisations. In this year she contracted Paget’s disease (an abnormal breakdown of bone tissue) and a mastectomy left her with a nine-inch scar. She then returned to England where a surgery, for appendicitis, left her with chronic abdominal pain.
Gibson became more and more obsessed with religion during her 40s. She went on retreats, followed the Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope and became fixated on the ideas of martyrdom and “mortification.”
By 1922 she had had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum having been declared insane. Two years later, along with a nurse named Mary McGrath, she travelled to Rome where she lived in a convent. By this point, she was convinced that God wanted her to kill someone as a sacrifice.
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 her 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.
In March 1926 Gibson’s mother passed away. By April of that year, her obsession with killing someone had refocused; it was now trained on Mussolini.
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.
Benito Mussolini emerged into the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, having just opened an international congress of surgeons. He strutted towards his black Lancia idling in the square, chin tilted upwards in his usual comically pompous pose, taking the Fascist salute from a man in buckled shoes and quiver hat, as the waiting crowds chanted: “Viva Il Duce!” A group of students to his right began singing the Fascist anthem and as he turned his head towards them there was the sudden rasp of a gunshot.
Blood began to flow from Mussolini’s nose. He looked up to see a small, elderly lady opposite him pulling the trigger of her revolver again – yet there was no second shot. When he realised that the pistol had jammed, Mussolini ordered the stunned crowd to stay calm; he dismissed what had happened as “a mere trifle” and then went back inside to clean up the flesh wound on his nose.
The fascist leader stayed very calm and told the crowds “Don’t be afraid. ” Mussolini was only slightly injured and after having his nose bandaged he continued his parade.
Later he said that while he was ready for “a beautiful death” he did not want to die at the hands of an “old, ugly, repulsive” woman.
In custody for her crimes, Gibson said she shot Mussolini “to glorify God,” who had sent an angel to keep her steady.
In 1926, at the time of their 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.
Violet Gibson, 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 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.
To try to kill the fascist leader when the King of England had just awarded him the Order of the Bath, and British journalists were reporting gladly that his “trim handsome black-shirted lads” were doing a fine job of keeping down the Bolshies, might be the act of a madwoman. But 20 years later, once the Duce had been defeated and lynched in his turn, and hung up dead by his heels (“like a prosciutto”, her friends suggested that Violet should surely be released. Too late. History might have endorsed her political judgment, but two decades in the madhouse had done nothing for her sanity. She belaboured fellow-patients with a broom-handle. She believed her moods created the weather. She never came out.
Violet’s father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. You are able to track her early life through the society pages – at a wedding in chiffon and pink carnations, in pearl-embroidered satin at a Dublin ball, she had been raised to be little more than an ornament. There are several of her grand Anglo-Irish family, notably her brother Willie, an enthusiastic member of the Gaelic League who, when he came out to Italy to retrieve his sister, aroused the suspicions of the police by wandering around the Colosseum in a saffron-coloured kilt. (Rumour had it he kept a tortoise in his sporran.) But Violet remains elusive. No-one initially heard her voice, and no-one knows the important things about her – not even the name of the fiancé whom she met in rackety artistic circles in Chelsea, and who shortly thereafter died.
Her attempts to break away from the life set out for her led to estrangement and psychological damage. Her rebellion also had a religious twist.
In her 40s, in 1916, Violet attended a Jesuit retreat. She kept notes; One verb tells through her jottings: “mortify . . . mortified . . . mortification” and – lest there be any mistake – “Mortification means putting to death”.
Soon she was wandering around Kensington with a kitchen knife in her hand, having left her Bible open at the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. By the time she left for Rome, her closest friend Enid was pretty certain she intended to kill someone there. Enid thought the intended victim was probably the pope.
In the early 1920s, she was ‘treated’ in various mental health institutions. It appears that she wrestled with ideas about the moral duty to kill for a higher good. A medical file in 1923 described her as ‘violent. Homicidal’ … ‘she has shown no signs of violence’, the report continued, ‘but says she might want to try again to kill someone’.
The restless Gibson kept a close eye on the rise of the Fascist regime in Italy and travelled to Rome in November 1924. While packing ‘she had time enough to include in her luggage a small revolver’. Fourteen months later, on April 7th, 1926, she tried to kill Il Duce in broad daylight. Anti-Fascism may well have played a part in her action. She had been spotted among the spectators at the trial of the Fascists who had murdered Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti earlier that year.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Mussolini sported a huge bandage on his nose and played up to stories that he was ‘immortal’. Recent comparisons have been made with the behaviour of a current Italian politician after he too was attacked in a city centre.
Meanwhile, the international establishment rallied around the Italian dictator. The British ambassador wrote that ‘happily the bullet only scratched his [Mussolini’s] nose’ and the Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, wrote to the dictator: ‘My wife joins me in congratulating you on your escape.’
In Rome, the authorities argued over how to deal with Gibson. Had she acted alone or was she part of a wider political conspiracy? What was to be done with this ‘mad’ woman? A political deal was done with British state officials, with the full agreement of Gibson’s family. The sentence was clear, ‘internment for life’.
Pardoned by Mussolini and escorted back to England, Gibson was interned for the rest of her life in a private hospital for lunatics.
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 regimen 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 gynaecological 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.
If only she had been a better shot, she might have influenced the course of the Second World War. 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 behaviour was generally manageable, but each year when April rolled around she exhibited her violent tendencies. On April 2, 1930, she was found with a noose around her neck made of scraps 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. She died at the age of 80, alone, forgotten and abandoned by the world.No one attended her burial.
She died at the age of 80, alone, forgotten and abandoned by the world. No one attended her burial.
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.
Born in 1883 in Dovia di Predappio, Forlì, Italy, Benito Mussolini was an ardent socialist as a youth, following in his father’s political footsteps, but was expelled by the party for his support of World War I. In 1919, he created the Fascist Party, eventually making himself dictator and holding all the power in Italy.
Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was the eldest of three children. His father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith and an impassioned socialist who spent much of his time in politics and much of his money on his mistress. His mother, Rosa (Maltoni), was a devoutly Catholic schoolteacher who provided the family with some stability and income.
As a youth, Benito Mussolini showed much intelligence but was boisterous and disobedient. His father instilled in him a passion for socialist politics and a defiance against authority. Though he was expelled from several schools for bullying and defying school authorities, he eventually obtained a teaching certificate in 1901 and, for a brief time, worked as a schoolmaster.
In 1902, Benito Mussolini moved to Switzerland to promote socialism, and quickly gained a reputation for his magnetism and remarkable rhetorical talents. While engaging in political demonstrations, he caught the attention of Swiss authorities and was eventually expelled from the country. In 1904, Mussolini returned to Italy and continued promoting a socialist agenda. He was briefly imprisoned and, upon release, became editor of the organisation’s newspaper, Avanti (meaning “Forward”), which gave him a larger megaphone and expanded his influence.
Mussolini became the 40th Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 and began using the title Il Duce by 1925. After 1936, his official title was [His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire]. Mussolini also created and held the supreme military rank of First Marshal of the Empire along with King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, which gave him and the King joint supreme control over the military of Italy. Mussolini remained in power until he was replaced in 1943; for a short period after this until his death, he was the leader of the Italian Social Republic.
Mussolini was among the founders of Italian Fascism, which included elements of nationalism, corporatism, national syndicalism, expansionism, social progress, and anti-socialism in combination with censorship of subversives and state propaganda. In the years following his creation of the Fascist ideology, Mussolini influenced or achieved admiration from, a wide variety of political figures.
Among the domestic achievements of Mussolini from the years 1924–1939 were: his public works programmes such as the taming of the Pontine Marshes, the improvement of job opportunities, the public transport, and the so-called Italian economic battles. Mussolini also solved the Roman Question by concluding the Lateran Treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See.
On 10 June 1940, Mussolini led Italy into World War II on the side of the Axis despite initially siding with France against Germany in the early 1930s. Believing the war would be short-lived, he declared war on France and the United Kingdom in order to gain territories in the peace treaty that would soon follow.
Three years later, Mussolini was deposed at the Grand Council of Fascism, prompted by the Allied invasion of Italy. Soon after his incarceration began, Mussolini was rescued from prison in the daring Gran Sasso raid by German special forces. Following his rescue, Mussolini headed the Italian Social Republic in parts of Italy that were not occupied by Allied forces. In late April 1945, with total defeat looming, Mussolini attempted to escape to Switzerland, only to be quickly captured and summarily executed near Lake Como by Italian partisans. His body was then taken to Milan where it was hung upside down at a petrol station for public viewing and to provide confirmation of his demise.
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