The former Italian international soccer player, Paolo di Canio, may be a fan, but the modest Irishwoman, the Honorable Violet Albina Gibson, was certainly not. In 1926 she linked Irish nineteenth century land purchase with twentieth century Italian fascism when, around the time he assumed absolute power in Italy, Violet Gibson unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini.
At the time Il Duce was saluting his public in the Piazza del Campodoglio in Rome. He had just addressed the International Congress of Surgeons, so he was probably in a good place had Violet Gibson been a better shot. As he sat in his Duce-mobile, waiting to be whisked away, the car was approached by a petite, bespectacled, and somewhat shabby fifty-year old woman. Instead of smiling and waving at the Italian prime minister, she took out a gun and shot him at almost point blank range.
Gibson, a member of an Irish aristocratic family, was, unfortunately, not a particularly good shot, and pistols are notoriously inaccurate in the hands of a novice. She hit Mussolini in the nose, twice, causing a spectacular nosebleed, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. At least one bullet went right through both nostrils. A third attempt to fire led to the gun jamming. Had Mussolini not turned his head at the wrong moment—or the right moment if you’re a lover of Fascist dictators—Violet Gibson might not have failed in her one and only attempt at killing someone other than herself. Mussolini’s recorded reaction was one of surprise, that his assailant was a mere woman.
Gibson was immediately set upon by enthusiastic Fascist spectators, eager to demonstrate their devotion to Il Duce, and was almost lynched. The police intervened, and she was quickly overpowered and arrested. She can probably consider herself fortunate. A few months later a teenager tried to kill Mussolini in Bologna, he was captured by a vengeful mob, strangled, knifed, and then shot.
The middle-aged Irish aristocrat was from a celebrated Anglican and Unionist family, but had converted to nationalism and Christian Science, before eventually becoming a Catholic, in 1902. Her Catholicism, however, did not prevent her from once threatening to shoot the Pope, whom she accused of betraying her beloved Italy. The year before her attempt to end prematurely the illustrious career of Il Duce, she had tried to kill herself with a gunshot to the chest. She missed on that occasion too, her inaccuracy probably explaining her inability to kill the Fascist leader from the much greater range of a couple of feet, the following year.
After the attempt to take her own life she had spent her days living quietly in a convent in Rome, mostly doing jigsaws. She gave no indication of what she had in mind when she stepped out on 7 April 1926. Neither did she tell any of the nuns that she was armed.
Although she claimed to have been ordered to kill Mussolini by God himself, in the case made to the Military court that tried her, the prosecution held that ‘the deed was not attempted in an unconscious frenzy of delirium, terror or hallucination’. However, when she was released on Il Duce’s orders, and deported to Britain, she was committed to the same asylum where James Joyce’s daughter Lucia spent the last thirty years of her life. She died in 1956 at the age of seventy-nine, and is buried in Northampton in England.
Violet’s action would actually not have gone down too well in official circles in Britain in 1926, as the King of England had just awarded Mussolini the Order of the Bath. But his own lynching in 1945 prompted calls for her to be released. By then, however, her mental state had deteriorated, and she suffered from the delusion that her moods were responsible for the weather. With most of us it’s the other way around. On her return to England she had written many letters to Winston Churchill, and much later, to the future Queen Elizabeth. None were ever posted.
Incidentally, the obscure reference in the first paragraph to Irish land purchase was based on the fact that Violet Gibson was the daughter of Edward Gibson, Baron Ashbourne, the Tory Lord Chancellor whose 1885 legislation speeded up the acquisition of the land of Ireland by its tenant farmers, in what became known as the Ashbourne Land Act.
The Honourable Violet Gibson came within inches of changing European history ninety-one years, on this day.