The story of the little-known Violet Gibson (1876–1956), who shot Italian ruler Benito Mussolini on April 7, 1926, but failed in her assassination attempt.
London-based cultural historian Saunders (The Devil’s Broker: Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy, 2005, etc.) unearths an impressive amount of information about Gibson. Born to an influential family in Dublin, Gibson had been slated for a comfortable life in high society. Unlike her sisters, however, she refused to marry well and rear children. Instead, she studied a variety of fringe religions and mystic philosophers before settling on Catholicism as her guiding faith and leaving Ireland forever. Eventually settling in Rome, the isolated, lonely Gibson decided she must assassinate the increasingly imperialist Mussolini because God wanted her to slay a bad man. Despite the normally high state of security surrounding the dictator, the frail, white-haired Gibson walked up to him on Rome’s Campidoglio Square and fired at his face. The bullet grazed his nose. When Gibson tried to shoot again, her weapon failed to discharge. By then, Mussolini had moved away and Gibson had been immobilized by members of the crowd. Unsurprisingly, Gibson ended up in a jail cell. After years of legal maneuvering, she was confined to an insane asylum until she died in custody 30 years after the assassination attempt. In addition to documenting Gibson’s outer and inner lives during the three decades of incarceration, Saunders skillfully describes the continued ascendancy of Mussolini, whose life was ultimately unaffected by the assassination attempt. Though it’s difficult to decipher whether Gibson should be remembered as a courageous heroine or a briefly violent insane person, it’s obvious that the more Saunders learned about her, the more the author came to admire her subject.
A thorough, well-written biography of an enigmatic figure.