Welcome to my 100th blog post! To commemorate this somewhat surprising (to me anyway) milestone, I share with you a weird and little known tale from early 20th Century Italian history.
Three years after his 1922 march on Rome, Mussolini declared himself dictator of Italy. At that stage, he had little opposition; his propaganda machine (and violent suppression of anyone who dared question his authority) made sure of that. Nevertheless, 1926 was a tricky year for Il Duce: he experienced no fewer than four assassination attempts, including a failed shooting by 15-year-old anarchist Anteo Zamboni, who was promptly lynched, strangled, knifed and shot to pieces by a crowd of Mussolini fans. But it’s the first attempt — and the one that came closest to achieving its goal — that I want to talk about today.
On 7 April (86 years ago tomorrow!), Mussolini was heading to his car, having just delivered a speech on modern medicine to the International Congress of Physicians, which was meeting on the Campidoglio. None of his dozens of bodyguards took any notice of the shabby little 50-year-old grey-haired lady who stood just a few inches away. When Mussolini lifted his arm in a fascist salute to the crowd, Violet Gibson raised her arm as well — and shot Mussolini in the face.
Fortunately for him (if not for the world), at that very second, Mussolini cocked his head to better hear the group of students who had burst into ecstatic fascist song. The bullet just grazed his nose, although it did unleash dramatic torrents of blood. A second shot misfired. “It’s only a flesh wound,” he said later, sporting a big bandage on his nose and deeply embarrassed that he had nearly been killed by a mere woman. Violet was wrestled to the ground and beaten and kicked by the frenzied crowd before the police spirited her off to jail.
The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and the daughter of Lord Ashbourne, who was Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1895-1905. I looked it up and the Lord Chancellor was a very big deal: the highest ranking judicial official in Ireland prior to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. A debutante at the court of Queen Victoria, Violet was pretty, but sickly and frail. A mastectomy and appendectomy, plus a couple of bouts of peritonitis, left her in chronic pain for much of her life. While all of this health stuff was happening, various of Violet’s family members (there were eight kids) and her fiance started dying off left and right. At the age of 26, after flirting with Christian Scientism and Theosophy, Violet converted to Catholicism, much to her father’s chagrin. Now, faced by so much sickness and death, Violet became obsessed with the notions of killing and martyrdom.
After her favorite brother died in 1922, Violet had a nervous breakdown and was committed to an insane asylum. She got out two years later and moved to Rome because she was, by that time, crazy Catholic and she was freaked out by all of the murdering that Mussolini was doing of his critics on sacred Roman ground. For a while she thought about murdering the Pope, who she saw as a totalitarian dictator defiling her believed Rome. In 1925, Violet decided to martyr herself for the glory of God. But she was just as bad a shot then as she would prove to be a year later on the Campidoglio: instead of hitting her heart as she had hoped, the bullet lodged in Violet’s ribcage. After that, she became more and more obsessed with killing Mussolini as a sacrifice to God. Her mother’s death in March 1926 was the final straw and the rest, as we say, is history.
Violet’s family was horrified by the assassination scandal and eager not to be on the wrong side of Italy’s still very legitimate leader. They sent all sorts of apology notes to Mussolini, hoping for his nose’s full recovery. There was a great difference of opinion among the Italians as to whether Violet was part of a conspiracy or simply nuts. She was interrogated and assessed for an entire year before Mussolini, wanting to curry favor with the Brits, dropped the charges and set Violet free. She spent the rest of her life — another 30 years — at St Andrew’s Sanatorium in Northamptonshire, England.
And there you have it: the strange sad tale of the rich aristocratic debutante who tried to whack Il Duce. A good impulse, even if it was prompted by insanity and religious fanaticism. If you’d like to know more about this story, I highly recommend Frances Stoner Saunders’ book, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini.