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The lady killers

Violet Gibson came within two inches of going down in history as the Irish assassin who changed the course of the 20th century.

In 1926 the 50-year-old Dublin woman travelled to Rome where she fired three shots at Benito Mussolini as he sat in a car, hitting him twice in the nose.

The Italian dictator took pity on his would-be killer and deported her to Britain, where she died 30 years later in a mental asylum.

As Mussolini wiped the blood off his face, he was heard to mutter under his breath: "A woman! Fancy, a woman!" A lot of people probably have much the same reaction today when a political assassin turns out to belong to the fairer sex.

Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised, since one of the earliest (and goriest) murders on record was committed by a female.

The Bible tells us that 3,000 years ago, Jael, a warrior heroine in ancient Israel, invited the enemy commander to her tent, lulled him to sleep with a drink of milk and then used a tent peg to smash his brains out.

This gruesome tale has eerie parallels with events in Dubai this week, where Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a leading commander of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, was found dead in a hotel room.

The chief suspects are a group of 11 people caught hanging around the scene on CCTV, almost certainly members of the Israeli secret service Mossad.

Eyebrows were raised here when it was revealed that five of the conspirators were travelling on Irish passports -- but even more chilling is the fact that the person thought to have electrocuted and then suffocated Mahmoud is a young woman.

The word "assassinate" was first spoken by Shakespeare's Macbeth, who as we all know was talked into stabbing the King of Scotland by his greedy and domineering wife.

A few centuries later, Rudyard Kipling coined the famous phrase: "The female of the species is more deadly than the male."

In fact, history suggests that the reality is slightly different -- while women are quite capable of setting out to kill political leaders, more often than not they end up like poor old Violet Gibson and fail to hit their target.

Fanny Kaplan was a fanatical Russian Bolshevik who believed that Vladimir Lenin had betrayed the revolution. In August 1918 she shot at him three times as he left a Moscow factory called the Hammer and Sickle, hitting him in the shoulder and jaw. The bullets did not kill him and Kaplan was shot without trial three days later.

On September 20 1958, the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King was signing books at a department store in New York City. A well-dressed African-American woman, Izola Ware Curry, walked up to him, said, "I've been looking for you for five years", and stabbed him in the chest with a steel letter opener.

King almost died in hospital, but showed his usual Christian charity by forgiving his attacker. Ten years later he was assassinated by the white racist James Earl Ray, while Curry still lives in a mental institution at the age of 93.

Valerie Solanas was a radical American feminist whose SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto called for the killing of every male on the planet.

She decided to start with the pop artist Andy Warhol and shot him outside his famous Factory studio in June 1968. He survived after extensive heart surgery but was never the same man afterwards, while Solanas got off with just three years in prison.

The popular image of the assassin was brilliantly captured by Edward Fox in the classic film The Day Of The Jackal -- cool, professional and utterly ruthless.

The reality is that most assassins, such as Lee Harvey Oswald (killer of JFK) and Mark David Chapman (who shot John Lennon), are sad, lonely misfits who go after celebrities in a pathetic attempt to make themselves seem more important.

That was certainly true of the two women who made separate attempts to assassinate US President Gerald Ford in 1975. Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, a disciple of the notorious Manson family, pointed a handgun at him but was prevented from firing by a quick-thinking Secret Service agent.

Two weeks later the revolutionary and FBI informant Sara Jane Moore fired a shot at the President but missed his head by six inches when a bystander grabbed her arm. Both women escaped the electric chair and have recently been released.

Of course, there have been some female assassins who managed to get the job done. The Roman Emperor Commodus was not actually killed by Russell Crowe as the movie Gladiator suggests, but drank wine that was poisoned by his mistress Marcia instead. During the French Revolution, the aristocrat Charlotte Corday stabbed the radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub, claiming, "I killed one man to save 100,000" as she went to the guillotine.

More recently, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam was the Tamil Tiger and suicide bomber who blew up the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

On the whole, however, real life has yet to produce a political lady killer as glamorous as Kristanna Loken in Terminator 3 or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. If the murderers of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh are brought to justice, that gap may finally be filled.