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MANUELA SÁENZ (1797-1856) Simon Bolivar’s Mistress and Political Rebel

In Biography, Dictators, Feminists, History, Simon Bolivar, South American history, Trivia, Uncategorized on July 26, 2010 at 9:49 PM

Watercolor of Manuel Saenz wearing the Order of the Sun Medal

Manuela Sáenz would learn very early in her life that marriage was not as important as love.  Her mother, Joaquina Aizpuru, was not married when she became pregnant with Sáenz, the result of an affair with a family acquaintance in a higher social class.  To avoid the humiliation of such bad judgment, Aizpuru was sent away to keep her pregnancy secret, and forced to relinquish her daughter to the care of nuns in a convent in Quito.  She died by the time Sáenz was seven.  Simón Sáenz de Vergara was a wealthy businessman and successful politician with a wife and six children.  A scandal could have ruined his life, but to his credit, he acknowledged Sáenz, paid the one thousand-peso dowry for his daughter to be given a proper upbringing in the convent, and introduced her to his legitimate children, giving her life some family context.

Sáenz’s father took responsibility for his daughter’s future by arranging a marriage to a much older, wealthy Englishman, and the newlyweds moved to Lima.  As a young wife, Sáenz socialized with Peru’s social, political and military elite.  She became sympathetic to the rebel cause, and against her husband’s orders, she joined the patriots to liberate Peru from the tyranny of Spain.  For her involvement, Sáenz received the Order of the Sun, an award given to those who made an exceptional contribution to the campaign.

Her appetite for political adventure having been whetted, Sáenz left her husband and moved back to Quito in 1822. She unapologetically abandoned her marriage in a time when women had few options in life.  There Sáenz met Simon Bolivar, “El Libertador” of South America. 

Back in her hometown, Sáenz again immersed herself in the independence movement.   Bolivar was to parade through town to celebrate victory in the battle that gave Quito independence.  On a fateful day, Sáenz’s participation was not militant.  She had the decidedly female job of beautifying the homes along the parade route to make a good impression on the esteemed soldier.  That evening, the two met at a reception and began their legendary love affair.

FOLLOWING HER HEART        At first, Sáenz was assumed to be another notch on the belt of a great womanizer.  As scandalous as their affair was, the couple had an immediate deep, passionate connection.  When Bolivar left Quito, Sáenz did not retreat back to her family, or even her marriage, as a spurned lover.  She followed him and integrated herself into his life.

Sáenz and Bolivar’s romantic partnership could not be distinguished from their political alliance. She became the official keeper of Bolivar’s personal archive, guarding his private papers and personally maintaining the secrecy of the army’s military strategy.  Her commitment to the cause superseded any fear she may have had of battle.  Sáenz organized troops and rescued and nursed those injured on the battlefield.  In one letter to Bolivar, Colombian General Antonio José de Sucre called Sáenz a hero for her contribution in the Battle of Ayacucho, and he recommended that Bolivar make her a Colonel of the Colombian army, which he did.  This appointment was so controversial because Sáenz was a woman that, in an irate letter to Bolivar, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Paula de Santander accused him of nepotism.  But Bolivar defended the bravery that earned Sáenz the recognition.

WHAT SHE DID FOR LOVE       When the wars for independence were over, Sáenz was 29, and she moved into Bolivar’s official residence.  She was well known as his mistress, but her influence extended beyond the personal to the role of gatekeeper for those wanting to meet with Bolivar.  And she didn’t need permission to act on his behalf.  In 1827 in Lima, the conditions for the troops were so bad that the army officers threatened a rebellion that would totally undermine the new constitution that Bolivar had established.  While Bolivar was away, Sáenz visited the soldiers wearing a colonel’s uniform and contributed money for food to dissuade them from being influenced by rebels with an ulterior political agenda.  She was rewarded for her initiative by being arrested and expelled from Peru, but her commitment to Bolivar’s cause never wavered. 

Sáenz not only dedicated herself to Bolivar’s political mission, but she was directly responsible for saving his life on at least two occasions.  In August 1928 Bolivar was to attend a party that Sáenz was not invited to.  She had received word that at midnight he would be assassinated, and she begged him to skip the event.  He ignored her warnings thinking she was just jealous at not being on the guest list.  At about 11:00, Sáenz showed up wearing a military uniform, but she was denied entry by the guard who turned out to be one of the conspirators.  She made another desperate attempt to preempt the assassination attempt by dressing up in dirty rags like an old crazy woman.  She positioned herself outside and yelled, “Que viva el Libertador!” (“Long live the Liberator!”)  Sáenz’s behavior was becoming an embarrassment to Bolivar, so he left the party to reprimand her.  At midnight, when the conspirators came to kill him, Bolivar was gone. 

Six weeks later, the couple was at home when Bolivar’s enemies entered the house with the same goal.  Sáenz ran to the sleeping man, supplied him with a sword and gun and forced him to jump out the window.  Bolivar resisted, instinctively wanting to stay and fight, but finally he trusted her judgment and left.  When the would-be assassins confronted her, she said legitimately that she didn’t know where he was, and he successfully escaped.  For this heroic effort, Bolivar called her “Libertadora del Libertador” (“Liberator of the Liberator”). 

Bolivar was a hero for emancipating South America from Spanish rule, but there was trouble in determining the governments.  Bolivar proclaimed himself as the dictator of the Gran Colombia in August 1828 in an effort to save the unified republic he fought so hard to establish and maintain his leadership. That did not appease the insurgents in Venezuela and Ecuador.  In 1830 he resigned and prepared to flee to Europe in self-imposed exile.  He died of tuberculosis in Columbia before he could leave. 

A REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE   Sáenz’s association with Bolivar did not endear her to the incoming leaders, and she was exiled to Jamaica three years later.  Even from a distance, she attempted to stay involved in the political process of establishing the boundaries between Colombia, Ecuador and Peru through correspondence.  Over time, however, she became increasingly less relevant. 

Her final years were in stark contrast to the heady adventures with Bolivar.  After an attempt to return to Ecuador was refused, Sáenz settled in a port city in northern Peru, selling tobacco and translating letters for North American whalers to send to their lovers in Latin America.  She fell when the termite-eaten stairs of her home collapsed and became permanently disabled.  In 1856, at 59 years old, Sáenz died during a diphtheria epidemic and was buried anonymously in a mass grave.

Sáenz was eventually given proper respect for her role in South America’s liberation from Spain.  On July 5, 2010 symbolic remains of her body along with soil from her original grave were reinterred next to the tomb of her lover and compatriot, Simon Bolivar.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa presided over the ceremony at the National Pantheon in Caracas, Venezuela.

QUESTION:  What is the craziest or most daring thing you’ve done to show your love for someone?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.1/foote.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuela_S%C3%A1enz

http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/liberators/saenz.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sim%C3%B3n_Bol%C3%ADvar

http://www.vheadline.com/readnews.asp?id=94055

Murray, Pamela S. For Glory and Bolivar, The Remarkable Life of Manuela Sáenz                      http://books.google.com/books

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VIOLET GIBSON (1876 – 1956) Shot Mussolini

In Assassinations, Biography, Dictators, History, Italian History, Mental health, Mussolini, People, People from England, Trivia, Uncategorized, Victorian Women, women on May 17, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Violet Gibson

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   

 Sources:   

 Saunders, Frances Stonor, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.