It was 1926 and Benito Mussolini was on top of the world.
Four years after the March on Rome which brought his National Fascist Party to absolute power in Italy, "Il Duce" (The Leader) was not only greatly loved and admired by devoted followers in Italy but his international reputation seemed secure as well. Despite unsavory publicity over the violent tactics of Mussolini's Blackshirts in dealing with his political foes, active opposition to his rule was suprisingly limited. Direct Fascist control over radio stations and newspapers as well as a vigilant propaganda network likely helped with that as well. Considering Il Duce's popularity at the time, his security was fairly muted. Not only was Mussolini fond of giving long public speeches from a public balcony overlooking Rome's Piazza Venezia, he often rushed from one public event to another in an open car.
Whatever security arrangements were in place to protect the popular leader, nobody was expecting him to be shot by a 50-year old Englishwoman named Violet Gibson. A titled aristocrat, the Honourable Violet Albina Gibson was a daughter of Edward Gibson, First Baron Ashbourne and a former Lord Chancellor of Ireland. She never married (though she had once been engaged) and her life seemed unremarkable except for her conversion to Roman Catholicism relatively late in life. At the time of the shooting, she had been living quietly in a convent in Rome where she reportedly spent her time doing crossword puzzles with her Irish maid.
Her exact reason for attempting to kill Mussolini was never clear but the assassination attempt itself was certainly blatant enough. On April 7, 1926, Il Duce was at the palace overlooking the Piazza del Campidoglio where he had just delivered a speech to a meeting of the International Congress of Surgeons. Stepping out on to the balcony overlooking the Piazza, a group of students broke into song praising their leader and he bowed his head in their direction. At was then that the bespectacled and shabbily-dressed Gibson shot him three times with a small pistol at point-blank range, less than a metre away. None of the shots were life-threatening but Mussolini was immediately taken back inside and treated for his wounds (did I mention that there was a meeting hall filled with surgeons present?). He reappeared to the crowd shortly afterward wearing a bowler hat, a frock coat, and an adhesive bandage on his nose.
Violet Gibson was not as lucky since the enraged mob nearly lynched her on the spot. She was badly beaten by the crowd before the police dragged her to safety and revived her with brandy. Immediately taken into custody (more for her protection than any real concern about her danger to society), Gibson was later interrogated over the shooting which she insisted was on God's orders. The assassination attempt (which would be one of four that Il Duce would face in that same year) turned out to be a major propaganda coup for Benito Mussolini. Just a few days later, he would make the famous statement, "Pistol shots pass, Mussolini stays on". He was also awarded a special decoration by the Italian government for suffering "a wound of the Fascist revolution". Beyond that, Mussolini showed no particular interest in Violet Gibson once he realized that she was not the sort of assassin who might stir up support for him. Upset that the frail, English spinster was not a sinister assassin (he described ber as “one of the old, ugly repulsive women who come from abroad in groups"), Il Duce ignored her. Still, he used the various assassination against him that year as an excuse to have his Blackshirts crack down on the country even further.
The question of what to do with Violet Gibson still remained though. While 15-year Anteo Zamboni would be lynched later that same year for attempting to shoot Mussolini, she was treated far more leniently. Criminal prosecutors were at a loss of what to do with her when they concluded that she had been acting alone and was not part of some international conspiracy. The great Italian criminologist, Enrico Ferri, took a special interest in Violet Gibson's case and attempted to prove that she was insane. As a widely known authority on criminal behaviour and a student of Cesare Lombroso, Ferri's opinion was well-respected (although his political background might have been unfortunate since he was a former member of the Italian Socialist party).
In the now-classic case study that he provided to the military law court examining the case, Ferri argued that Violet Gibson was highly suggestible and even hinted that her assassination attempt may have been due to the influence of "some criminal who, with cruel ferocity, thought to avail himself of a mad woman as his agent" (no evidence for this was ever found). While ruling out obvious signs of mental illness such as hallucinations or delusions, Ferri acknowledged that Gibson was fully aware of what she was doing, His review of her life history showed that she had been hospitalized numerous times before in England due to "homicidal ideas and to attacks of acute violent mania." Along with a previously knife attack on a young girl (she had been stopped before doing any permanent damage), Gibson had also tried to shoot herself. Ferri also drew on the psychological testimony of two forensic psychiatrists who had evaluated Violet Gibson after the assassination attempt. They had both concluded that she had been "in a state of mental infirmity" when she had shot Il Duce and was suffering from "lucid insanity".
Unfortunately, Ferri's report was also filled with the same propaganda about Benito Mussolini that marked most official documents of that era. He spoke at length about Il Duce's great accomplishments and his love for his country which the disturbed woman seemed incapable of appreciating. Although she had given no sign of what she had been planning, enough of her letters to her family survived to give an idea of the moral and religious mania that motivated her actions.
Eventually released without charge at Il Duce’s request, Violet Gibson was promptly deported. Accompanied by her sister, Violet was carefully escorted back to England by train and an entourage of nurses and security agents. Once in England, she was immediately certified as insane by two different doctors. Violet Gibson was then shipped to St. Andrews Hospital in Northampton where she was bathed, drugged, and placed in restraints. She would spend the rest of her life there as a mental patient. Even her prominent family had no idea what to do with her occasional episodes of violence and made no attempt to have her released..
According to Stonor Saunders, in his awesome biography, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, Violet spent her remaining years writing letter after letter to family members, Winston Churchill, and members of the Royal Family (including then-Princess Elizabeth). The letters, which were never mailed, included grandiose plans for making the world a better place. In the years that followed, Mussolini’s popularity in the U.K. plummeted and, with the outbreak of World War II and Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany, some of Violet’s friends argued for her release. They pointed out that she had simply been ahead of her time in recognizing Mussolini’s danger.
Despite their arguments, Violet Gibson stayed in the mental hospital until her death in 1956. Ironically, she had long outlived the man she had tried to shoot since Il Duce had been executed in 1945. There is no actual record of how she reacted to hearing of her former victim’s death but you would think she must have felt some satisfaction at finally being vindicated.
Was Violet Gibson insane when she attempted to kill Benito Mussolini? Despite her position as a member of one of Ireland’s most prominent families and her history of mental illness, exactly what motivated her to fire that gun in a public square is still a mystery.