The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
BY FRANCES STONOR SAUNDERS FABER & FABER, £20
On April 7 1926 Italian Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini had just given a speech to the International Congress of Surgeons in Rome when an assassin’s bullet nearly ended his life. After he finished his speech, he strutted to his car, raising his arm in the Fascist salute to the waiting crowds. At the time, no one noticed Violet Gibson, a small Irishwoman with a long history of mental illness, standing among the crowd, just feet away from Mussolini. As the dictator approached his waiting Lancia, Violet raised her revolver and pointed it at Mussolini’s head, firing her first shot at nearly point-blank range.
But luck was with Il Duce that day. For at nearly that exact moment, a band struck up the National Fascist Party’s official hymn. Mussolini turned to face the flag and snapped to attention, bringing his head back just enough for the bullet fired by Gibson to graze rather than kill him. In fact, the bullet passed through part of Mussolini’s nose, leaving burn marks on both of his cheeks.
Although onlookers and his staff were worried that the wound could be serious, it was not. As he staggered back, blood spurting from his face, Violet pulled the trigger again, but this time, the pistol misfired. Then the crowd overwhelmed her.
Within minutes, Mussolini reappeared, wearing a large bandage over his nose. He was heard to murmur incredulously: “A woman! Fancy, a woman!” The immediate Italian reaction to the shooting seems to have been exemplary. Mussolini acted with great courage and presence of mind, telling those around him to keep calm, and insisting on carrying on with the day’s engagements. Meanwhile, the police rescued Violet from the angry crowd, undoubtedly saving her from a lynching. Questioned as to her motives, she said she had shot Mussolini to glorify God, and that God had sent an angel to steady her aim. She added that she could communicate with the dead and that the spiritual elect met in her room. In the San Onofrio asylum, to which she was rapidly transferred, she had a comfortable private suite and a special menu in recognition of her aristocratic status. For Il Duce’s attacker was the Hon Violet Gibson, an Irish aristocrat, and Frances Stonor Saunders’s eloquent book pieces together her sad and almost forgotten story from Italian and British archives. Her aim is to right an injustice and rescue her subject from obscurity.
Born in 1876, Violet was the daughter of Lord Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and she and her six siblings grew up in a beautiful Georgian house in Merrion Square, Dublin. Educated at home by governesses, she spent each spring in Italy and enjoyed winter holidays in St Moritz. At 18, she was presented at court to Queen Victoria. The family had some eccentric interests. Lady Ashbourne was a leading Christian Scientist, and Violet’s brother Willie was an Irish nationalist, ardently opposed to British rule.
Violet’s private income allowed her to visit Theosophical academies in Switzerland and Germany to accumulate esoteric knowledge. In 1902, she became a Catholic. Willie also converted, and together they joined a liberal faction in the Church, opposed to papal support of dictatorial regimes. Violet told Willie that the Pope had betrayed the Church and should be eliminated, and she spent some time in a nursing home after trying to force her way into a Carmelite monastery in Kensington.
She did not actually turn violent, however, until 1923, when she attacked a servant with a knife and was taken to an asylum in Virginia Water where she was certified insane. Medical staff reported that she sat on the floor of her padded room “calling for people to kill”. Despite this she was released, and travelled to Italy the following year with a gun in her luggage. Friends feared she would shoot the Pope, but in February 1925 she tried unsuccessfully to shoot herself.
The police confiscated the gun and the nuns in the convent where she was staying nursed her back to health. Violet told the Mother Superior she had been called on to undertake “a very great mission” and that five other people were involved. It seems certain she was set up by conspirators exploiting her mental instability.
Mussolini sought no retribution. He insisted from the first that Violet was mad and should be sent back to Ireland where, he said, she would find plenty of congenial company.
But the Italian press bayed for her blood. A court found her insane, releasing her into the care of her relieved family. They took her back to England and placed her in a hospital for mental diseases in Northampton, where she remained until her death in 1956.
The “hospital” was a luxurious retreat set in 1,000 acres of pastoral scenery with luxury cars to take patients for drives.
The author writes with anger of the Gibson family and the doctors they consulted who shut her away. The Northampton medical records suggest that Violet was far from sane. She attacked other patients without provocation and tried to hang herself. She woke at night shrieking that the Devil was in her room, and believed she was predestined to rule the Italian people.
Stonor Saunders appears to give some credit to Violet’s claim that she was divinely inspired. “Violet,” she writes, “may have been following God’s orders when she set out to kill Mussolini.” Yet if the Almighty had wished to assassinate Mussolini, surely he would have chosen a better marksman and supplied a more serviceable weapon. Given the outcome, the Pope’s announcement that God had saved Mussolini’s life by deflecting the bullet looks more convincing. For once God is invoked the author’s wish to celebrate Violet as a kind of heroine becomes problematic. The belief that you have a mandate from God to kill those you disapprove of is the misguided ethic of the suicide bomber. In today’s world we have learnt to regard this with revulsion rather than acclaim.
And God tends to bide his time. In April 1945 Mussolini and several other leading Fascists were captured by partisans, executed and left hanging by their ankles for all to see at the inglorious setting of an Esso petrol station in Milan.