The Irish Aristocratic Woman Who Almost Assassinated Mussolini in 1926: An Introduction to Violet Gibson

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.

via The Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Mus­soli­ni Sends to Amer­i­ca a Hap­py Mes­sage, Full of Friend­ly Feel­ings, in Eng­lish (1927)

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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