When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, everyone except her thought it was a crazy thing to do. The ensuing debate was to determine whether she was certifiably crazy or not. Death and illness were themes of her life and perhaps fertilized the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.
Born the seventh of eight children as the Victorian era was starting to wind down, Gibson had an enviable life. Her father was Lord Ashbourne, the lord chancellor of Ireland, a protestant. Her father’s title bestowed on her the title of Honorable. The Gibsons split their time between London and Dublin, participating fully in the parties, concerts and galas of the elite. At age 18 the Honorable Violet Gibson was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.
Being sick consumed a lot of her youth and as a result she was quite frail. She had scarlet fever when she was five, peritonitis at 14, pleurisy at 16 and rubella at 20. She displayed a violent temper early on.
Lady Ashbourne, Gibson’s mother, became a Christian Scientist with the expectation that Mary Baker Eddy’s religion would bring her into stronger health. Gibson tried it out, but in her early 20s, switched to Theosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky. She was attracted to its mission to build a universal brotherhood without discrimination of any kind. Then at 26 years old, Gibson followed her brother Willie’s lead and converted to Catholicism. Their father expressed great disappointment at this decision, and it became a wedge in their relationship.
Gibson started receiving a private income from her father at age 21, which allowed her to be independent. In 1905 there were several deaths in the family, and her father’s term as the lord chancellor was up. Gibson dealt with so much loss by moving to Chelsea, an artsy section of London. She explored a bawdier side of life and became engaged to an artist at age 32. One year later he died suddenly and Gibson had another death to grieve.
Six times within the next year Gibson became ill with the “fever.” The only diagnosis the doctors could offer was influenza or a nervous disorder called “hysteria.”
In 1913, Gibson’s father died, and she tried to cope by fleeing to Paris where she worked for pacifist organizations. Later that year she contracted Paget’s disease, a type of cancer, and had a left mastectomy which left a nine-inch scar across her chest. She worked hard as a peace activist until she fell sick again and went back to England. At age 40 she had surgery for appendicitis and peritonitis. Unfortunately, the surgery was not successful and she suffered from chronic abdominal pain for the rest of her life.
While she was recovering, Gibson became a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope. This is when she started grappling with the notion of killing and martyrdom, perhaps inspired by experiencing so much death. In her notebook she had a quote from Pope: “The degree of holiness depends on the degree of mortification. Mortification means putting to death.”
In 1922, Gibson had to deal yet again with a death in the family: her brother Victor who was her favorite sibling. This was more than she could bear. One month later, at age 46, Gibson had a nervous breakdown. She was pronounced insane and committed to a mental institution.
Two years later, Gibson was released and went to Rome accompanied by a nurse, Mary McGrath. They took up residence in a convent in a working class neighborhood with a high crime rate. Her crisis of conscience was growing as she became more and more convinced that killing was the sacrifice that God was asking of her. Somehow she got possession of a gun.
On February 27, 1925 Gibson went to her room, read the Bible and then shot herself in the chest. The bullet missed her heart, went through her ribcage and lodged in her shoulder. She told McGrath that she wanted to die for God. Had she been successful, she wouldn’t have had to endure the grief of the death of her mother in March 1926, one month before the Mussolini assassination attempt.
On Wednesday, April 7, 1926 Gibson left the convent after breakfast. In her right pocket she had a Lebel revolver wrapped in a black veil, and in her left pocket she carried a rock in case she had to break a windshield to get to Mussolini. She also clutched the address of the Fascist Party headquarters written on a scrap of envelope. She had read in the newspaper that Mussolini would be there in the afternoon.
Mussolini appeared as if on cue, walking through the Palazzo del Littorio, soaking in the praise of the crowd as they shouted, “Viva Il Duce!” He stopped about a foot from where Gibson was standing. Just before the gun went off, Mussolini leaned his head back to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration, and the bullet grazed his nose. Gibson shot again, but the gun misfired. There was blood pouring down Mussolini’s face, and he staggered backwards but managed to stay standing.
Mussolini maintained his composure and consoled the crowd saying, “Don’t be afraid. This is a mere trifle.” Gibson was immediately captured and beaten by the crowd, and the police got control of the situation and took her off just before she succumbed to vigilante justice.
In prison, when Gibson was undergoing interrogation, she admitted that she shot Mussolini to glorify God. She said God’s message to her was clear, and that he had sent an angel to keep her arm steady as she took aim.
Gibson’s family, wary of the impact that her actions could have on their reputation and afraid for her future, sent letters of apology to the Italian government and congratulated Mussolini on his escape from death.
The fate of Violet Gibson was not clear. Her punishment hinged on whether she would stand trial as a political criminal or be declared insane. A violent reaction to a note given to her by another inmate that read “Viva Mussolini” did not help convince the authorities of her stability. In contrast, her conversations were rational and her correspondence was lucid and thoughtful.
Gibson had to endure a grueling regime of tests. In addition to a full medical exam, she was subjected to 20 days of psychiatric exams. She hoped to gain her release by convincing the doctors that she was mad. Four months after the assassination attempt, a 61 page report declared Gibson as a “chronic paranoia” and recommended she be committed to a lunatic asylum.
To complete Gibson’s profile, the investigating magistrate wanted to create a psychosexual portrait. She was considered abnormal because she never expressed an inclination to start a family. It was a common belief that a woman’s mental state could be affected by repressed sexuality. A complete gynecological examination was ordered. No abnormalities were found, but her independence, violent anger and self mutilation were enough evidence to declare her insane and not to try Gibson as a political criminal.
Gibson was released to the custody of her sister to return to England. She was committed to St. Andrews Hospital, a renowned mental institution. Her behavior was generally manageable, but each year when April rolled around she exhibited her violent tendencies. On April 2, 1930, she was found with a noose around her neck made of scrapes of cloth she had been collecting. A nurse found her and loosened the rope. Gibson was unconscious but still alive.
In January 1951, Gibson suffered from a high fever. She was down to 84 pounds. She managed to hang on for a few more years, and finally, on May 2, 1956, Violet Gibson died. No one attended her burial.
QUESTION: Do you know anyone who has been killed by another person? How did that affect your life?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Saunders, Frances Stonor, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.