Monday 24 October 2016

The Irish woman who shot Mussolini

Ninety years ago this week, Violet Gibson almost changed history

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Mental illness: Violet believed God wanted her to kill Mussolini as a 'sacrifice'.
Mental illness: Violet believed God wanted her to kill Mussolini as a 'sacrifice'.

Re-imagined histories are fertile ground for authors, such as the life - and death - of Benito Mussolini. Italy's fascist dictator was executed in April 1945 by partisans, but muddled circumstances gave birth to a conspiracy theory which persists to this day. Umberto Eco's final work, last November, centred on whether Il Duce was spirited away by a collusion of CIA, Vatican, Communists and God knows who.

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That was fiction. But what about an alternate history, which might have been, in reality? A story involving a middle-aged Irishwoman, daughter of a Baron, who shot Mussolini three times, including twice in the nose, for no apparent reason, and ended her days in a British mental asylum.

That sounds more fictional than Eco's story… yet it's all true. Next Thursday, April 7, marks the 90th anniversary of Violet Gibson's attempt to kill Mussolini. Amazingly, he survived the point-blank attack with minor injuries.

The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson was born in Dublin on August 31, 1876. Her father was lawyer and politician Edward Gibson. He was made 1st Baron Ashbourne 10 years later, and from 1985 to 1905 served as Lord High Chancellor of Ireland.

Violet grew up in well-heeled Merrion Square. Her early life was one of privilege and society events as part of a large Anglo-Irish family dividing their time between Dublin and London. At 18, Violet was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.

Often sick as a child - scarlet fever, pleurisy, bouts of ill-defined "hysteria" - she grew into a "tiny" woman, mentally and physically frail. Young Violet also had a "violent temper". She flirted with Christian Science and then theosophy, the ding-bat quasi-religion spearheaded by Madame Blavatsky (WB Yeats was a devotee). In 1902, then 26, she converted to Catholicism.

Three years later, after several deaths in the family, Violet moved to Chelsea. She got engaged to an artist aged 32; he died a year later, his name lost to posterity.

In 1913, Violet moved to Paris, working for pacifist organisations. She contracted Paget's disease; a mastectomy left a nine-inch scar on her chest. She returned to England, where botched surgery for appendicitis resulted in lifelong chronic abdominal pain.

During her forties, Violet grew evermore obsessed with religion. She went on retreats and became a follower of Jesuit scholar John O'Fallon Pope. She began fixating on martyrdom and "mortification" - which, in Violet's mind, meant "putting to death".

In 1922, she suffered a nervous breakdown, was declared insane and committed to a mental institution. Two years later, accompanied by a nurse called Mary McGrath, Violet was released and travelled to Rome, where she lived in a convent.

By this stage, she had become convinced that God wanted her to kill someone in sacrifice. This could be herself: Violet came by a gun and, in February 1925, shot herself in the chest. Miraculously, she survived. Violet told McGrath she "wanted to die for God".

By April 1926 - one month after her beloved mother passed away - the object of her ire had shifted to Mussolini. On April 7, she went to the Palazzo del Littorio, where the Prime Minister was giving a speech. Violet carried a revolver wrapped in a black veil, and a rock in case she needed to break his windshield; there was quite literally method to her madness. The rock wasn't needed: Mussolini walked through the adoring crowd, stopping a mere foot away.

And here the Great Author of Fate tweaks the story, just enough: right before the gun fired, Mussolini leaned back to acknowledge the crowd. The shot grazed his nose. Violet shot again; the gun misfired.

To his credit, Il Duce showed preternatural calm by staying on his feet and telling people around him, "Don't be afraid. This is a mere trifle". (To his discredit, he later said that, while ready for "a beautiful death", he didn't want it from an "old, ugly repulsive" woman.)

Violet was captured and beaten by a mob; the police smuggled her away before she was killed. Under interrogation, she claimed to have shot Mussolini "to glorify God" who had kindly sent an angel to keep her arm steady.

Her family wrote, apologising, to the Italian government. She was declared a "chronic paranoiac" and returned to England and St Andrew's Hospital. Violet died on May 2, 1956. Sadly, there were no mourners.

So that's the "why" of her attempt to kill Mussolini: God "told" her to do it. But what if Violet's bullets had found their mark?

Had he died in 1926, Italy might not have been fascist for so long without its "strongman" figurehead; they might not have entered the war. His successes inspired and emboldened Hitler. Today, Mussolini's influence is still felt, in Italy - granddaughter Alessandra is an MEP - and further afield (Greece's hard-right Golden Dawn are fans).

Worst of all, Violet's assassination attempt triggered a wave of popular support for Mussolini and a raft of oppressive legislation. So her actions probably strengthened Il Duce's grip on Italy. Now there's a twist worthy of any novel.

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