Violet Gibson: The Irish Woman who Shot Mussolini
Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Violet Gibson, the daughter of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was the Anglo-Irish woman who attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini in 1926. Had she succeeded, she would have been celebrated as an anti-fascist heroine, who changed the course of history forever. Sadly, her fate was to spend the rest of her life silenced & locked up in a psychiatric hospital, branded as a madwoman.
Her story has been written of out of 20th Century history, but it is now being retold in a number of ways; in biographical books and short stories, on radio, in film, on stage, and also in contemporary music.
The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 31 August 1876. Her father, Edward Gibson was an Irish lawyer and politician, who was created Baron Ashbourne in 1885. Violet’s father and his family, were conservative Protestant Unionists, but her mother, Lady Frances Ashbourne, later became a Christian Scientist, with the expectation that Mary Baker Eddy’s new religion would bring her into stronger health. It deemed sickness to be derived from sin, and advocated that healing could only come from prayer and not from medicine.
Violet Gibson was often sick in childhood and through adolescence. She had scarlet fever when she was five, peritonitis at the age of 14, pleurisy at the age of 16, and rubella at the age of 20. In her youth she sometimes displayed a violent temper. However, if she was constantly confined to her bed and was unable to be physically active, due to her ill health, it would no doubt cause immense frustration to an intelligent young woman. In her early 20’s, Violet became interested in the cult religion of Theosophy. Theosophy’s main belief was that life and all its diverse forms, human and non-human, are indivisibly one. The aim of Theosophy was to build a universal brotherhood without discrimination of any kind.
Her brother Willie, whom she idolized and looked up to, had converted to become a Roman Catholic and had begun working in the slums of South London on a social justice mission to help the poor, after attending Oxford University. He was more Irish in his political thinking, in that he identified with the victims of Imperialism and Colonialism and not the establishment. Violet often accompanied him on trips to some of the poorest areas and families, and this must have opened her eyes to what life was like for those at the opposite end of the social spectrum.
Violet eventually followed her older brother William's example, and became a Roman Catholic in 1902. Their father expressed great disappointment at this decision, and both Willie and Violet's relationship with him suffered as a result, with Willie being totally disinherited. Converting to Catholicism in upper-class Anglo oriented Ireland was synonymous with degrading oneself. The saying went “a convert is a pervert.” This decision was not just about a woman converting to a new religion, but a woman repudiating and rejecting all that the British Aristocratic life-style, religion and ideals symbolized.
Violet’s early adult life had been taken up with attending elite balls, society weddings and other such lavish events. She, like many other young women of the privileged upper classes, was presented as a debutante at court, during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Gibson started receiving a private income from her father age 21, which allowed her to be financially independent and to travel in Europe where she visited France, Germany, and Switzerland and became interested in both philosophy and politics.
In 1905 there were several more deaths in the Gibson family. To cope with her overwhelming grief, Violet then moved from Dublin to London, where for a short time, she explored a much more bohemian side of life and met a handsome man who was an artist in Chelsea. They fell madly in love, and became engaged when she was 32, but tragically her fiancée died just a year later, which left her feeling totally grief stricken and bereft. She never had another close relationship with a man - he was the one and only love of her life. Several times in the following year Gibson became ill with the “fever.” The only diagnosis the doctors could offer her for this illness, was influenza or a nervous disorder called “hysteria.”
In 1913, Gibson’s father died, and this time, she tried to cope with the grief by fleeing to Paris, where she worked for various 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 had to go back to England. At the age of 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. Death and illness were always significant themes in her life and perhaps fertilized the psychological soil where a religious seed had already been planted.
While she was still recovering, Gibson, became a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope. This is when she started to become obsessed with the idea of killing and martyrdom, no doubt inspired by the fact that she had experienced so much death in her own life. In her notebook she had written a quote from Pope: “The degree of holiness depends on the degree of mortification. Mortification means putting to death.” The word "Mortification was written several times over.
In 1922, Gibson had to deal yet again with an unexpected death in the family. This time her beloved brother Victor, whom she was very close to, passed away suddenly. It was more pain than poor distraught Violet could bear. One month later, at the age of 46, she had a nervous breakdown; was declared insane and was committed to a mental institution for two years.
When she was finally released, Violet left for Rome with her private nurse, Mary McGrath. Enid, a close friend of Violet's, was certain that she intended to kill someone in Italy but Enid thought at the time, that it may have been the Pope who was Violet's intended target.
Violet and her nurse, took up residence in an Italian convent, in a working class area with a high crime rate. Violet became more and more convinced that killing was the sacrifice that God was asking of her.
Violet managed to come into possession of a gun - something that would not have proved too difficult considering the type of neighbourhood that they lived in - and then Violet attempted to commit suicide whilst she was in Rome. On February 27, 1925 Gibson went up to her room, read the Bible and then shot herself in the chest. Miraculously, the bullet missed her heart, went through her ribcage and lodged in her shoulder. She told Mary 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 7 April 1926. Had the grief of losing her mother set off another mental health crisis for Violet, or was the religious anti-fascist political campaigner and lifelong pacifist, steadfastly fulfilling her chosen role as a martyr for the cause?
That morning, Gibson left the convent after breakfast. In her right pocket she had a 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 in a car.
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. She was determined that this was the day he would die.
Mussolini was only three years into his rule, when Violet Gibson attempted to kill him. Gibson was standing with a group of fanatical supporters and the dictator was soaking in the praise of the crowd as they shouted, “Viva Il Duce!” whilst he walked among them in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. He had just left an assembly of the International Congress of Surgeons, to whom he had delivered a speech on the wonders of modern medicine.
Violet raised her gun, took aim, and fired once, but Mussolini moved his head back at that very same moment, in order to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration. The bullet whizzed past his face, and grazed his nose; Violet tried again, but this time the gun jammed and misfired. There was blood pouring down Mussolini’s face, and he staggered backwards - but managed to stay standing. At that very moment time stood still for Violet, as she closed her eyes and waited for death to descended upon her.
Gibson was almost lynched on the spot by the angry mob, but the police intervened and dragged a badly battered and bruised, semi-conscious Violet, into a room containing the colossal marble foot of the Emperor Constantine, where she was revived with brandy before being sent to prison.
Mussolini was wounded only slightly, dismissing his injury as "a mere trifle", and after his nose was bandaged, he continued his parade on the Capitoline Hill. Mussolini rewrote the story of the attempt on his life and turned the situation to his advantage.
"Fancy, a woman!" he exclaimed, aghast, upon being shot. He was ready, he said, for "a beautiful death", but Violet, one of the "old ugly repulsive women who come from abroad in groups", was absolutely not the kind of person he wanted to be killed by. However, of the four people who attempted to assassinate “Il Duce”, Violet came closest.
Mussolini was the type of powerful, misogynistic man, who liked to display his muscled torso shirtless and loved to impress people and be adored. In direct contrast, Violet was a tiny, 5ft 1in woman who was emaciated and frail. She was unmarried at 50 years old but looked closer to 60 and had suffered ill health all her life. This was never going to be a situation where Violet would win.
In 1926, the British Newspapers were full of praise for Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who were currently keeping the Russian Bolsheviks in their place, and the King of England himself had just awarded Mussolini, the Order of the Bath. 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.
Violet told her interrogators that she shot Mussolini "to glorify God" who had kindly sent an angel to keep her arm steady. She said that the idea was all hers and that she worked alone - but was it really such an act of insanity to attempt to kill a man whom the entire world would later regarded as a megalomaniac? Doctors described her state of mind after her arrest as “exalted.” Violet Gibson was ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, in order to save the world from Fascism. When she pointed the gun at Mussolini’s head, Gibson knew she was about to deliver herself up to vigilante vengeance of the mob once he had been shot. Nevertheless she took the chance, and it was only the gun that failed her yet again - not her courage.
The question was, would she 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 mental stability. In contrast, her conversations with the guards were rational and her written correspondence was lucid and thoughtful.
Gibson had to endure a humiliating regime of tests whilst she was in prison. In addition to a full medical exam, she was also 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 having “chronic paranoia” and recommended that she be committed to a lunatic asylum.
To complete Gibson’s profile, the investigating magistrate wanted to create a detrimental psychosexual portrait. Violet was considered abnormal because she had never expressed an inclination to marry or start a family. It was a common belief that a woman’s mental state could be affected by repressed sexuality. A complete gynacology examination was ordered. No abnormalities were found, but her independence, violent anger and her propensity for self-mutilation and self-harm, were enough evidence to declare her insane and for Gibson to escape being tried as a political criminal.
Following 18 months of imprisonment and investigations into the possibility that she was part of an organized international conspiracy, a deal was brokered by Mussolini and the British Foreign Office to have Gibson declared insane once again, and locked up in a British lunatic asylum until her passing. Violet was deported to Britain after being released without charge, at the request of Mussolini, an act for which he received the thanks of the British government.
With the gracious manners of the ruling classes, Violet wrote a thank-you letter to her jailer – "Please be so kind as to offer my thanks also to the Director'" – then she allowed her sister and a posse of police officers and nurses to escort her on to a train. Her sister watched her carefully as they passed through France, where Violet would have been free to escape, had she realized it. Arriving after dark in London she was taken by cab to Harley Street, examined by two different doctors at midnight, was certified insane and was driven straight to the Northamptonshire asylum, where she was washed, drugged and then locked away from the rest of the world forever.
The assassination attempt triggered a wave of popular support for Mussolini, resulting in much more oppressive legislation, and consolidating his complete control of Italy, until the end of the Second World War. Violet spent the rest of her life in St Andrew's psychiatric Hospital in Northampton, despite repeated pleas for her release by family and friends. Her mood was generally restrained, 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 scrapes of cloth which she had been secretly collecting. A nurse found her and loosened the makeshift rope. Gibson was unconscious, but still alive.
Even when Mussolini himself was lynched and met his own violent death at the end of The Second World War, Violet Gibson remained imprisoned in the Hospital. After spending 20 years incarcerated in an institution, her mental health had deteriorated even further. She shouted at fellow-patients and threatened them. She believed her moods created the weather and she could never be released and lead a “normal” life. She would spend her time alone, feeding the birds in the hospital grounds.
In April 1945, as the Allied troops were advancing heavily into northern Italy and defeat was inevitable, Mussolini, his mistress, Clara Petacci, and 15 other high ranking Fascists, were attempting to escape over the border into Switzerland, where they planned to take a private plane to Spain. However, they were identified and captured by a group of Italian Partisans, near Lake Como, and instead of being entrusted to the control of the United Nations forces to be tried for war crimes, Mussolini, Clara, and everyone else who was travelling with them, were shot. Eyewitnesses claimed that Petacchi vainly tried to shield her lover, Mussolini, from the bullets with her own body, before they both died. The shootings took place in the small village of Giulino di Mezzegra and were conducted by a partisan leader who used the nom de guerre “Colonnello Valerio”.
A few days later, the corpses of Mussolini, Petacci, and the other executed fascists were loaded into a van and moved south to Milan. At 3:00 a.m., the bodies were dumped on the ground in the old Piazzale Loreto. After being kicked and spat upon, their dead carcasses were then hung upside down from the roof of a local petrol station, stoned from below by civilians, and subjected to ridicule and abuse.
Mussolini was buried in an unmarked grave in the Musocco cemetery, to the north of Milan. Just over a year later, on Easter Sunday 1946, Mussolini’s body was dug up by neo-Fascists. Mussolini's body was finally "recaptured" in August, hidden in a small trunk at the Certosa di Pavia, just outside Milan.
During her years in the asylum, Violet wrote many letters - to her family, to Winston Churchill, and to Princess Elizabeth the future Queen of England – but they were never posted by the staff. In the letters, Violet proposed plans for the betterment of the world – plans almost as grandiose as those of the Dictator she tried to kill. Violet's life was poignantly lonely and inconsequential: Mussolini's was full of historical power and violence. Violet only tried to kill two people – herself and the Italian Dictator - and failed both times. Mussolini, by contrast, caused over three million deaths.
In January 1951, Gibson caught another high fever and became even more underweight and frail. She finally died on 2 May 1956 in St. Andrew’s hospital and was buried in Kingsthorpe Cemetery, Northampton. No one attended her burial.
In 2014, the story of Violet Gibson was brought to wider audience by a radio documentary broadcast by RTÉ. It was made by Siobhán Lynam, and draws on the biography 'The Woman Who Shot Mussolini', by Francis Stoner-Saunders. You can listen to the full radio documentary below:
The documentary subsequently served as the basis of the film 'Violet Gibson, The Irish Woman Who Shot Mussolini', which was directed and produced by Lynam and her husband, Barrie Dowdall. You can watch the trailer for the film below:
As part of their research, the husband and wife team looked at archive materials in Italy, and said the largest collection of information on any of the individuals who attempted to assassinate Mussolini was held on Gibson.
"At a time when people would go on pilgrimages to have tea with Mussolini, a woman - a 50-year-old woman at that - shot him at point blank range," said Lynam. "If this had been done by a man, there would probably be a statue or something put up, but because she was a woman, she was locked away. We are just so happy that we are able to tell her story and get it out there," said Mr Dowdall. "Violet Gibson was someone who was very brave to do what she did, and between her and Benito Mussolini, and all the things he did, who was really mad?"
Gibson's story is also the subject of Alice Barry's play Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. According to Barry “Gibson was always a political person and she had very strong religious convictions. She was involved in the suffragette movement and she was very much against Britain going to war in 1914”.
Barry says that Gibson wanted to do something worthwhile. “I’ve taken some artistic license to make the play more dramatic. How I tell her story is that she didn’t want to be a typical Victorian woman doing needlework and being a dutiful daughter and wife. She never married. There’s documentation that says she met an artist when she was 32. They fell madly in love and were supposed to marry but he died a year later. I feel that after that, she went off the rails. She had no outlet for her depression which was really grief.”
“Violet never said shooting Mussolini was a political act. She always said she did it for the glory of God. There is a psychiatric belief that she was schizophrenic. My take on her is that if you’re not allowed to speak and express yourself, if you’re not allowed to be creative and artistic, you’re going to feel imprisoned. I believe she wanted to break out of that and wanted to make a difference. I feel that had Violet been a man, we’d have all heard of him. Others said to me that if she had been a man, she would probably have been hanged.” You can see selected scenes from the play below:
Lisa O'Neill's song Violet Gibson also celebrates her actions. It is featured on O'Neill's album Heard a Long Gone Song and has become one of modern Irish folk music's standout compositions. You can listen to it at the end of this blog post.
Evelyn Conlon's short story Dear You provides an epistolary account of events from Gibson's point of view. The story first appeared in both Italian and English in Tratti Review (Numero Novantatre, Italy, May 2013), and subsequently in Accenti: The Magazine with an Italian Accent. It also appears in Conlon's Moving about the Place Collection (Blackstaff, 2021).
In March 2021 Dublin City Council approved the placement of a plaque on Violet’s childhood home in Merrion Square to commemorate Gibson. The motion states the "committed anti-fascist" should be brought into "the public eye and given her rightful place in the history of Irish women and in the rich history of the Irish nation and its people. It suited both the British authorities and her family to have her seen as 'insane' rather than as political." The plaque commemorates a committed anti-fascist and social justice campaigner, who is now finally being remembered again decades after her passing.
Frances Stonor Saunders - The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt 2010.
Wikipedia Biography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violet_Gibson
Guardian Review of the Violet Gibson’s Biography: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/27/woman-shot-mussolini-stonor-saunders
BBC News Article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-56111443
Other Online Sources:
Lisa O’Neill’s Song "Violet Gibson - Live Concert Version with intro telling Violet's Story