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Irish would-be assassin Violet Gibson makes feature film debut

05 March 2020

Forgotten for many years, the Irish woman who shot Benito Mussolini is the subject of a new film premiering at the Dublin International Film Festival this month. Read the DIB's recent entry on her remarkable life.

by Liz Evers

Violet Albina Gibson (1876–1956), failed assassin, was born 31 August 1876 in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, to Edward Gibson, a wealthy lawyer and politician, and Frances Maria Adelaide Gibson (née Colles), the daughter of a barrister. Violet was the second youngest of eight children: four boys and four girls, and was educated at home, primarily 12 Merrion Square, Dublin, by governesses, with an emphasis on music, singing, art and French. She suffered bouts of scarlet fever, pleurisy and rubella in childhood which left her with a delicate constitution. When she was nine her father ascended to the lord chancellorship of Ireland and became the first Baron Ashbourne.

The Honourable Violet Gibson was presented at age eighteen at Queen Victoria's court in London, and throughout the 1890s and 1900s her movements were diligently tracked across newspapers' social columns where she appeared among the lists of high-born attendees at concerts, balls, receptions, weddings and sporting events across Ireland, Britain and the continent. Despite being raised to be 'little more than an ornament' (Stonor, 40), Gibson was a serious young woman with an interest in religion and philosophy. After an attempt to engage with her mother's religion of choice, Christian Science, Gibson was drawn to theosophy, then fashionable among the literati, and she studied at its lodges in Switzerland, France and Germany. Catholicism, however, had the greatest draw on her, and she followed her eldest brother William Gibson into the faith, becoming a follower of the modernist Jesuit George Tyrrell. Alienated from her father's affections by her conversion, she moved to London in 1902.

In 1905 the first events in a series of tragedies occurred: Gibson's brother Victor's new wife died suddenly, then her brother Harry (Henry) succumbed to tuberculosis aged thirty-five. Spending her time in bohemian Chelsea, she met and fell in love with a young artist, and the two became engaged in 1908 but her fiancé died suddenly in early 1909. His name remains unknown. Following this loss, she threw herself into her religion and travelled to Italy to visit its holy sites. While there she fell seriously ill with a mysterious fever (possibly a manifestation of grief), and her sister Constance travelled to Milan to care for her for several weeks. Upon her return to England, she moved to Devon, and for a time she seems to have been happier, enjoying the companionship of her friend, Enid Dinnis, a novelist and fellow catholic convert, and regular visits to Buckfast Abbey. Gibson's father, from whom she was estranged, died on 22 May 1913 following a fall in Hyde Park. His cremated remains were sent to Ireland to be interred at Mount Jerome cemetery and Gibson attended the funeral. It was her first visit to Ireland since 1902, and was also her last.

At the outbreak of the first world war, Gibson became involved in the anti-war movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst and travelled to Paris to work for organisations promoting peace (Scotland Yard opened a file on her anti-war activities). In 1914 she was diagnosed with Paget's disease, a form of cancer, and had a left mastectomy. In 1916 she had to undergo another surgery, this time for acute appendicitis and peritonitis, this left her with life-long abdominal pain.

In 1915 she had become a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O'Fallon Pope, who promoted the idea that holiness depended on a high degree of mortification. In 1916 she attended a retreat he gave in Roehampton where practices of self-mortification – wearing hair shirts, self-flagellation and fasting – were required. She lived modestly and quietly in Kensington in the late 1910s and early 1920s, focussed on prayer and charitable acts according to an account by her former housekeeper (Evening News (London), 8 Apr. 1926). In 1922 she suffered another loss when her favourite brother Victor died suddenly, following an apparent mental breakdown. Gibson herself had a breakdown after his death and spent some time in a nursing home in Kensington. Her mental instability continued on her return to London and her friend Enid Dinnis recorded one event in October 1923 where she left the house in the middle of the night in her night clothes and was returned by two policemen. Shortly thereafter she attacked her housekeeper's daughter, Emily, with a knife, slicing her hand. According to a later interview with the housekeeper, Mrs Corner, the girl had found Gibson crossing and recrossing the street amidst traffic, and she tried to help (Evening News (London), 8 Apr. 1926). After this event, Gibson was certified insane and removed to Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water, Surrey. Notes from there state her to be homicidal and detail an attack on another patient with the intention of killing her. After six months she was released into the care of her mother and sister Constance.

She returned to live alone in Kensington, and according to Enid Dinnis, talked regularly about the morality of killing and the nature of martyrdom. In November 1924 she went to Rome accompanied by an Irish nurse-companion, Mary McGrath, and took up residence in Our Lady of Lourdes convent. Upon retrospective analysis of communications with her at the time, Dinnis wondered if Gibson had travelled to Rome with the intention of killing Pope Pius XI. She had expressed a deep disdain for him, and had unsuccessfully sought an audience with him upon her arrival. She certainly seemed to be on a religious mission of some kind, which the nuns and priests she encountered had assumed to be charitable in nature.

On Friday 27 February 1925, after praying alone in her room, Violet Gibson shot herself in the chest. The bullet entered her body just above her heart and lodged in her shoulder. When found she reportedly declared that she had wanted to die for the glory of god. Refusing to return to England, which would likely mean her being re-committed to a mental institution, she entered the Villa Giuseppina clinic in Rome as a voluntary patient to recover from her injury and receive psychiatric care. She never revealed where she had procured the revolver, which was confiscated by the police.

After two months at Villa Giuseppina, she moved to the convent of Santa Brigida with Mary McGrath. The remainder of 1925 was calm according to McGrath, though Gibson managed to slip from her supervision on occasion. Gibson devoured political news, following the evolution of the fascist movement in Italy. In November 1925 news broke of a thwarted international plot to assassinate Mussolini (which had in fact only been a small operation by a member of the banned Partito Socialista Unitario (PSU)). In March 1926, for unknown reasons, Gibson dismissed Mary McGrath, sending her back to Ireland. Later that month, her mother died after a short illness before Gibson could travel to England to see her. The following month, on 7 April 1926, Gibson, having procured another revolver, set out to assassinate Mussolini.

On the day of the assassination attempt, Gibson was armed with her revolver, a rock (for smashing Mussolini's car window if required) and a scrap of paper with the address of the Fascist party's headquarters on it, where Mussolini was due that afternoon. Instead Gibson took her shot at the Palazzo dei Conservatori where Mussolini was just emerging after a morning speech at the International Congress of Surgeons. Joining the crowd that had gathered to cheer him, she managed to shoot him at close range in the face. A last-minute head movement saved Mussolini's life, and the bullet merely grazed his nose. Gibson attempted a second shot, but the bullet stuck in the chamber. As Mussolini was led away bleeding but otherwise unscathed, the crowd descended on Gibson. After the police wrested her from the angry mob, she was taken to Mantellate prison and formally arrested. Throughout her police interviews Gibson gave different responses to the questions put to her – denying she shot Mussolini at all, then admitting it but giving diverse reasons for doing so, including not knowing why she did it. The press portrayed her as a confused 'eccentric' in the grips of religious mania rather than a would-be assassin. Her time in a lunatic asylum was emphasised and her motivations were never depicted as political. Her family and the British authorities were keen to promote this narrative. In an interview her sister Constance cited a combination of her devout catholicism and distress at the recent family deaths as the ultimate causes for her actions, and her sister-in-law Lady Ashbourne (William Gibson's wife) suggested her 'state of mind has been aggravated by the troubles in Ireland of a few years back' and stated that in the past Gibson had several times declared that she would assassinate the pope (Ir. Times, 9 Apr. 1926).

However, when interviewed by police, the mother superior and nuns of Santa Brigida said they believed Gibson to be of sound mind and involved in some secretive project with others (which they assumed was charitable): she was often out all day long, returning exhausted at night. In her room at the convent Gibson had amassed a collection of newspaper cuttings critical of Mussolini, and others outlining his movements. She also had a box of bullets. The origin of the revolver, her second, was never determined. The lead detective investigating the case believed Gibson was feigning madness and had not acted alone but possibly in collaboration with catholic modernist dissidents from the poor Trastevere neighbourhood. For political reasons, however, his superiors preferred the lone madwoman story (it is conjectured that they feared the consequences of uncovering a conspiracy, and relations with Britain may be impacted). While she was being held, her family finalised their secret plan to have her incarcerated for life in a mental asylum upon her release. 'Violet is quite as much afraid of us as of the authorities. Perhaps more so', her brother William wrote to Constance at the time (quoted in Stonor, 157).

In June 1926, succumbing to immense pressure, Gibson made a confession. Her story was that she had committed the crime to impress an Italian duke named Giovanni Colonna, who she had fallen in love with years before in Switzerland. Vehemently opposed to fascism, she claimed Colonna had communicated his desire for Mussolini's death through a series of clues before gifting her with gun and bullets, that led her to the assassination site that fateful day. The duke was under surveillance for anti-fascist activities, and his movements at the time of the shooting could not be accounted for, lending plausibility to Gibson's account. The authorities, however, were not convinced.

Shortly after confessing, Gibson reacted violently to a taunt from a fellow inmate, delivering a concussive blow with a small hammer used for flower-pressing, and this flash of madness was seized upon by those determined to prove her irredeemable lunacy. She was transferred to San Onofrio lunatic asylum on 5 July 1926. There she experienced better living conditions but was subjected to in-depth physical (including gynaecological) tests and psychological appraisal (including a history of her sex life) over an intensive three-week period. Her examiners described her as mistrusting, and a 'lover of isolation' (Stonor, 207), who closely guarded her independence and tended to disregard the counsel of others. They also detected a persecution complex, perhaps understandably, in relation to her family and their desire to take away her freedom, and symptoms of megalomania in her attitude to doing god's work. She expressed no remorse for the shooting. Gibson sought to be labelled mad, believing she may be reprieved. She may have affected certain behaviours to achieve this goal and ultimately received a diagnosis of chronic paranoia. The doctors recommended her continued incarceration in a lunatic asylum.

In September 1926 there was another unsuccessful attempt on Mussolini's life. Gibson expressed sympathy for the failed assassin to a nurse at San Onofrio while also bragging that she was a superior would-be killer. She had confided to the same nurse that she had had accomplices in her attempt on Mussolini. Her comments, which undermined the insanity argument, were passed to the magistrate in charge of her case who then submitted it for prosecution as attempted, premeditated murder. Gibson was again removed to Mantellate prison.

A fourth failed attempt on Mussolini the following month in October 1926 led to a crackdown on the leader's enemies, real and imagined. Oppressive laws were introduced, and prison numbers soared. Gibson found herself having to share a cell and, unable to cope with this change, attacked a guard, smashing a pottery jug over her head. She stopped eating, dramatically lost weight and became ill with a persistent fever. In January 1927, her lawyers managed to have her removed to a medical facility, citing the potential embarrassment that would arise from her dying in prison.

After considerable negotiation, and assurances that Gibson would ultimately be deported into her family's care, a show trial was staged in camera in May 1927. Gibson was not in attendance. The trial considered only her mental health (not a potential conspiracy) and she was freed into the care of her sister Constance, who escorted her back to England. Upon arrival in London, Gibson was taken to a Harley Street doctor to be certified insane prior to her commitment at St Andrew's, a mental asylum in Northampton, and the truth of her family's deception was revealed.

Confined at St Andrew's, she attempted in vain to communicate with the outside world. Her letters pleading for her freedom were not sent and much correspondence from friends was withheld by the administration. She spent her last years in a state of isolation with Constance as her only visitor. After a series of breakdowns in her early years of confinement, including a suicide attempt in 1930, she became calmer and found some comfort amongst the birds in the hospital gardens. Her medical notes throughout this period claimed there was no change in her condition and that she continued to be delusional. When Mussolini finally fell from grace, Gibson wrote to Winston Churchill pleading for release. Again, the letter was not sent by the hospital administration. It is not known how she received the news of the successful assassination of Mussolini in 1945, nearly twenty years after her own attempt to kill him.

After twenty-nine years of trying and failing to improve her lot: asking to be moved to a catholic nursing home, demanding medical attention for a heart condition that was largely ignored, and frequent requests to have her situation reviewed, Violet Gibson died after a long illness on 2 May 1956 aged seventy-nine. Her death was not announced in the press and no family or friends attended her funeral. The various requests in her will were largely ignored. Instead of being buried in a catholic plot her body was consigned to the nearby non-denominational Kingsthorpe cemetery, Northampton. She had left £100 for a headstone, but instead received a simple, quarry stone cross bearing just her name and the years of her birth and death. Her request for a requiem mass at Northampton cathedral was also not honoured, though a smaller service was held at a local parish church.

Long overlooked, interest in Violet Gibson's story was ignited in 2010 with the publication of Frances Stonor Saunders' favourably reviewed The woman who shot Mussolini. Subsequently in June 2014, RTÉ Radio 1 broadcast a documentary on Gibson's life 'The Irishwoman who shot Mussolini'. In 2017 TG4's series Racht featured an episode which focussed on her attempt on Mussolini's life, and in 2018 Irish folk singer Lisa O'Neill included 'Violet Gibson', a bittersweet ode to the woman consigned for so long to an asylum for trying to 'take the bad egg out', on her album Heard a long gone song. Barrie Dowdall's new film Violet Gibson premiered at the Dublin International Film Festival in March 2020 with full release pending for later this year.

NAI 1901 Census; Tablet, 26 July 1902; Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 26 July 1902; Tatler, 13 Aug. 1902; Ir. Times, 2, 3 Mar. 1925; 8, 9, 10, 13 April 1926; Belfast News Letter, 2 Mar. 1925; Scotsman, 8 Apr. 1926; Evening News (London), 8 Apr. 1926; Belfast Telegraph, 8 Apr. 1926; Frances Stonor Saunders, The woman who shot Mussolini (2010); 'The Irishwoman who shot Mussolini', Documentary on One RTÉ Radio 1 (first broadcast 21 June 2014)

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2019

Image: Violet Gibson's mugshot upon her arrest for the shooting of Benito Mussolini.

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