By 1926, Benito Mussolini had become one of Europe’s most popular leaders after consolidating power through violence, turning Italy into a police state, and providing a model for budding dictator Adolf Hitler. Mussolini’s received positive recognition from the press, celebrities, and governments around the world, as well as the imprimatur of the Roman Catholic church. None of this mattered to onetime Irish socialite and fervent Catholic convert Violet Gibson. She knew he must be stopped, and she almost did it, getting close enough to graze his nose with a bullet in 1926 before she was taken into custody, handed over to British authorities, and “consigned to an asylum” for the next 29 years, “her story… all but forgotten,” Nora McGreevy writes at Smithsonian.
Gibson grew up between Dublin and London, hailing “from a wealthy family headed by her father, Lord Ashbourne, a senior judicial figure in Ireland.” She “served as a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria” and was raised among European aristocracy. A sickly child, she also suffered from mental health issues and was diagnosed with “hysteria.” Perhaps the most defining moment in Gibson’s life — before her assassination attempt on the Italian fascist dictator — came when she converted to Catholicism in 1902. It was an event, argues Siobhan Lynam in the 2014 RTÉ radio documentary below, that would lead to “a sort mutilation” in her relationship with her family. “There’s a sort of severing that happens,” says Frances Stonor Saunders, author of The Woman Who Shot Mussolini.
Throughout the 1920s, Gibson suffered attacks of mental illness and was hospitalized after her brother’s death, “overwhelmed by grief and loss and the sheer exhaustion of physical illness.” She also followed current events closely, and she was appalled by Mussolini’s rise to power. “Italy for her,” Stonor Saunders says, “is a place of… idealized values.” Gibson traveled to Italy in 1925 with a revolver, which she first used to shoot herself in the chest. She survived, then formed a plan to kill Mussolini instead, despairing of the world he was bringing about. She was able to get close to him, perhaps, because she fit the caricature to which she has been reduced as a historical footnote.
“This is a woman whom history has stripped of all her dignity,” says Stonor Saunders. “She exists as a series of really dreadful cliches in a number of texts, books that refuse her any kind of humanity. She’s just a stereotype of crazy Irish spinster.” As Lynam’s documentary, Stonor Saunders’ book, and a new documentary film currently screening at film festivals (see trailer at then top) show, there was much more to Violet Gibson; she was a committed Catholic and anti-fascist and she nearly changed history in the most successful of the four attempts on Mussolini’s life. She was fifty years old at the time and she lived another 30 years in an institution, dying in 1956. She became known among the staff as the delusional old woman who believed she’d tried to kill Il Duce. No one remembered the event, her own recollections had been silenced, and she had virtually faded from the historical record.
Now, in addition to the media attention, attempts to erect a plaque in Dublin in Gibson’s honor are continuing apace. But why was she ignored for so long? Dublin city councillor Mannix Flynn tells the BBC that while women are rarely given their due for their role in historical events, “for some strange reasons, Violet Gibson became some sort of an embarrassment, she got shunned, they tried to say she was insane to hide the shame.” Gibson’s family had a hand in this, immediately using their power to bargain for her release from Italy and her commitment in Britain. But she also became an embarrassment to the powers in Britain and the world at large who had happily embraced a fascist dictator.