Over the course of his fascist dictatorship, four people attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini. Yet only one person ever came close. On the 7th of April, 1926, a tiny figure stepped out of a crowd in Rome and fired a shot at the infamous dictator. Her story has been wiped from history, swept under a rug and forgotten. Now, nearly a century later, her actions are being remembered. Her name was Violet Gibson; and this is her story.
The Early Life of Violet Gibson
Violet Gibson was born into an extremely wealthy Anglo-Irish family in 1876. Her father, Baron Ashbourne, was the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the country’s highest legal office. Violet was one of eight children, and they resided in the affluent area of Merrion Square in Dublin. A search through the National Archives Census of 1901, shows a record of the family. Lord and Lady Ashbourne, and five of their children are documented, alongside their extensive household staff. Eleven servants were registered with the family in 1901, which indicates the level of wealth that the family maintained. Violet was a middle child, with two older brothers, Edward and Victor, and two younger sisters, Frances and Constance, living at home at the time of the Consensus in 1901.
The sons were educated in Harrow, Trinity, Oxford and Cambridge, while the daughters were taught by governesses. She acquired her title, the Honourable Violet Albina Gibson, at the age of nine, when her father was made Lord Chancellor. At the age of eighteen, Violet was a debutante at the court of Queen Victoria. The term debutante refers to a young woman being presented to society, usually from an aristocratic or wealthy background. They would make their debut by curtseying in front of the reigning monarch and participating in the social season, with the hope of finding a husband, or match.
The Family Lifestyle
According to the society columns, the Gibson family led a prosperous and luxurious lifestyle. Life at Merrion Square was filled with balls, concerts in London and Dublin, family holidays in France and Italy, and skiing in San Moritz. They also attended social events at Buckingham Palace quite regularly. Violet Gibson first visited Italy at the age of ten, with her father. Little did she know that this country would go on to have a huge impact on her life.
Illness and Childhood
Violet was debilitated by illness from a very young age. She contracted scarlet fever, pleurisy, rubella and peritonitis, which left her physically fragile and small in stature. She was a young woman with great inner existential energy that had no outlet for expression. As a young woman she had a keen interest in religion, politics and philosophy. However, much of her life up to then had been spent resting and recovering from illness. At the age of 21, in 1897, she received an independent income from her father and decided to pave her own path in life.
Violet as a young woman
Upon receiving her independent income, Violet began traveling. She explored theosophy and its teachings in France, Germany and Switzerland. Influenced by her brother, Willie, who sympathized with the Irish victims campaigning for Home Rule, she became enamored with the idea of social justice. Willie had converted to the Roman Catholic Church while he was a student at Oxford University. He introduced Violet to Christian socialism and Catholicism, which was committed to the rights of the poor. Violet’s political education and understanding of social justice deepened as she regularly accompanied her brother around London’s slums.
In 1902, at the age of 26, Violet converted to the Catholic Church. Upon hearing this news, her family were absolutely devastated. Violet moved to Chelsea, where she explored a Bohemian lifestyle. She soon fell in love, and became engaged to an artist. One year later, her fiance died suddenly. She had only recently lost a brother and sister-in-law, and the weight of these losses struck her deeply. Violet turned her life over to charity and prayer, and began visiting holy sites in her beloved Italy. She soon became ill with a fever and returned home to England. She moved to Devon, where she often visited Buckfast Abbey, finding some peace from her grief and meeting Enid Dinnis, a novellist, who would become her closest friend.
Violet and the Outbreak of World War I
Violet was deeply affected by the outbreak of World War I. She was an avid pacifist, and detested violence of any kind. Her brother Victor, who she was closest to as a child, had been captured in South Africa during the Boer War. He had come back from that horror severely traumatised, and the entire family had been engulfed with terror and grief throughout his imprisonment. As a result, Violet was drastically against war of any kind. During WWI, Violet went to Paris, and worked as a peace activist with an anti-war organisation. She joined the Women’s International Congress and worked alongside socialist and suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst.
The Rise of Benito Mussolini
In 1919, Violet’s beloved Italy was in chaos and on the brink of civil war. Benito Mussolini had formed the National Fascist Party, inspiring the support of unemployed war veterans. He coordinated them into paramilitary squadrons known as Blackshirts, used to terrorize his political opponents. At this time, Violet was living on her own in Kensington, England, recovering from another illness; influenza. While being secluded for her recovery, her mind begins to run wild. Demons rising up from the past to haunt her. It is possible that this mental crisis was induced by the sudden death of her cherished brother, Victor. The result of this leaves Violet quite mad, causing her to attack a young girl with a knife in South Kensington.
This attack results in Violet’s admission into an asylum. While she is committed, she continues to follow the rise and growth of Mussolini’s power in Italy. As the bloodshed and regime of terror continues to thrive, Violet begins to weave a plan. She employs an Irish nurse, Mary McGrath, to come and take care of her on her release from the asylum. They pack their suitcases and leave for Rome, but what Mary does not know is that Violet has packed a small revolver in her suitcase.
Arrival in Rome
In November, 1924, when Violet and Mary arrived in Rome, they initially stayed in a pensione, an Italian boarding house, before moving to a convent near Piazza di Spagna. Here, Violet had her own room, which granted her more privacy to dwell on her plans. She began to go on outings into Rome on her own, visiting Trastevere, a working-class district populated by immigrants. At the time, it was considered one of the most dangerous places in the city, and Violet spent a lot of time there amongst the poor. She attached herself to a group of Catholic socialists who were in opposition to Mussolini and who shared her revulsion at the violence of Mussolini’s reign. Violet felt that Mussolini was trampling on, not just the idealised historical Italy that she adored, but also on the social and political freedoms that she felt liberal Italy had supported.
To be in opposition to Mussolini was to play a dangerous game. Giacomo Matteotti, leader of the United Socialist Party and Mussolini’s fiercest political competitor, was abducted in June 1924 by a fascist squad on his way to Parliament. He was forced into a car, taken to the woods, beaten, sexually assaulted, stabbed and dumped in a ditch. This brutal murder horrified Italian citizens and deeply affected Violet. Her identification with that heinous crime was potentially a key ingredient in the plan that was taking form in her mind. A plan to place herself in opposition to Mussolini.
Violet’s First Attempt at Retribution
Initially, Violet Gison decides to offer herself up as a sacrifice for Musolini’s crimes and the awful sins of fascism. In her prayers at the convent, she kneels before an altar that she has fashioned and shoots herself in the chest. She doesn’t succeed and the bullet passes straight through, missing any vital organs. Violet is found, lying on the floor in a pool of blood, by a horrified Mary McGrath and a doctor is called immediately. Her family were distraught when they heard the news and wanted to keep the news as quiet as possible. Violet refused to go back to England, suspecting that she would once again be locked up in an asylum by her family. Instead, she went to a private clinic in Rome and was visited every day by the devoted Mary McGrath.
Two months later, Violet was discharged and took lodgings in the convent of Santa Brigida with her faithful companion. At this point, Violet is probably the most lucid that she has been in years, and comes to the conclusion that the only way to get rid of Mussolini, is to get rid of Mussolini. In the spring of 1926, a year and a half after Matteotti’s murder, a number of men were brought to trial. It was a show trial, their fate was already decided, yet Violet was seen in attendance, taking notes and closely watching the fabricated proceedings. Her appearance was an indication that she had not forgotten her plans, or her determination to carry them through.
Violet fired her loyal companion, Mary McGrath, sending her back to Ireland, so she could concentrate fully on her plans. The time had come to act. On the morning of the 7th of April, 1926, Violet set out from the convent of Santa Brigida, a small, frail, white-haired figure. She attended mass in the chapel before she left for the Via Nomentana, to begin the long journey to the Palazzo Littorio, where the fascist headquarters where located. Benito Mussolini wasn’t due to appear there until the afternoon. However, on her way to the fascist headquarters, Violet noticed a crowd gathered at Campidoglio. On inquiry, she found to her surprise that they were gathered to see Mussolini. While this was not part of her original plan, she realised that the time had come for her to put her plan into action.
Violet Carries Out Her Plan
Violet Gibson pushes her five-foot one frame towards the front of the crowd and claims a spot in front of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The place was dotted with secret police and the crowd was growing bigger by the minute. The adoring crowds roared as Il Duce appeared, and made his way to a podium to give a speech before the Royal College of Surgeons. Violet slowly raised her arm, holding it steady, and took aim. She shot Mussolini at point blank range. But as she did, he slightly turned his head towards a student choir who had just burst into the chorus of a fascist hymn. He staggered backwards, his hands clasping his face as blood poured through his fingers. The bullet had missed, passing through part of his nose and grazing his cheeks.
Violet, in shock, fired again, but the bullet had stuck in the chamber. The crowd roared, desperate to avenge their hero. They set themselves on Violet, before the police saved her from being torn limb from limb. In a letter to her beloved friend Enid, Violet described how the police saved her from being violently torn apart by the crowd. She also described the feeling of transformation that she felt inside, how her heart was filled with happiness and love. Mussolini made a public appearance soon after the shooting, with a bandage over his nose and cheeks. Official statements recorded that he was calm and composed, shrugging off the attempted assassination as though it was nothing.
News of Violet’s assassination attempt swept like wildfire throughout Italy. Pope Pius XI sent word that all masses that day would be held in honour of Mussolini’s miraculous escape and the newspapers proclaimed the headline: “Our Glorious Il Duce Saved” and painted Violet as a mad woman. Blackshirts went on the rampage, burning non-fascist printing presses and attacking immigrants and the poor. Letters poured in from leaders across the globe, expressing their relief at Mussolini’s narrow escape. Violet was taken to the Regina Coeli jail, where she was photographed, fingerprinted and strip searched. She was then taken to the infirmary, so that the injuries she had received from the violent crowd could be attended to. After initial questioning, Violet was reported as calm, clear and collected.
Under interrogation, Violet Gibson wove a web of fabricated stories. She claimed that she shot Mussolini for the glory of God, that she had communicated with the dead and they were all her accomplices. The police continuously tried to uncover what her motivation was, but Violet never gave it away. Her family and the British Foreign Office were making an insanity plea, claiming that she had been unhinged since the death of her brother Victor. Violet’s fate depended on whether she would stand trial, or be declared insane. The psychiatrist’s report suggested she had chronic paranoia and recommended that she be committed to a lunatic asylum.
Violet and the Asylum
Thirteen months after the shooting, a deal was struck with the British Foreign Office. Violet was not allowed to attend her own trial, as there was fear that she would compromise the plea for lucid insanity. The plea is passed, and Violet, at this stage, is under the impression that she is going home a free woman. Instead, she is bustled onto a train in Rome by a group of plain-clothed policemen and nurses, headed for England. When she arrives, she is taken to Harley Street, where she is examined by two doctors and declared insane. It is close to midnight, when she is whisked off to Northampton, to be committed to St Andrews, a lunatic asylum. She was admitted on the 14th of May, 1927.
Violet would be kept here, under lock and key, for the next twenty nine years until her death. She wrote many letters, to her family, her friend Enid, but none of them were ever sent. Other friends wrote, trying to reach her, but she never received them. She was kept from the outside world; separate, alone, hidden. She had no visitors, except for her sister Constance. Violet never gave up campaigning for her release. She wrote letter after letter to bring her case to the attention of the authorities, but they were never posted. All Violet wanted, was to be moved to a Catholic nursing home to live out the rest of her days in peace, but that day never came. On May 2nd, 1956, Violet passed away at eighty years of age. There was no public announcement of her death, and no one came to her funeral.
The story of Violet Gibson is one that has been erased from history, hidden in the shadows. She was painted as a mad woman, and locked away from the world. Yet today her actions are being remembered. In 2014, her story was brought to a larger audience by a documentary radio broadcast by RTE in Ireland. A book has also been written about her life by Frances Stoner-Saunders : ‘The Woman Who Shot Mussolini’. Furthermore, Dublin City Council has passed a motion to put up a plaque dedicated to her in the city, likely outside her childhood home. Councillor Mannix Flynn, who proposed the motion, declared that Violet Gibson deserved her rightful place in the history of Irish women and in the rich history of the Irish nation.