April 7, 2023

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

April 7th, 1926. Three years into Benito Mussolini's fascist rule, an Irish woman named Violet Gibson attempts to assassinate the Italian dictator.


Cold Open

It’s the night of February 13th, 1922.

Inside a small house in the Italian countryside, Pietro Fioravanti, a 22-year-old artisan, is crouched down in the living room next to his younger brother—both grip shotguns in their hands. Hiding behind them is their mother, father, and sister.

Outside, a group of armed fascists yell at the family to open the door. Pietro knows these men are Blackshirts, a violent group that follows Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Pietro’s heard stories about Blackshirts leading raids all over the country, beating and sometimes killing Italians who support communism - people like him and his family.

Pietro checks his shotgun making sure it’s loaded. Then he calls out to the men outside and tells them to leave them be. But the Blackshirts don’t listen. Instead… they kick the door down and push inside. Pietro braces himself as two Blackshirts rush into the room with weapons drawn.

Pietro and his brother stand… firing their shotguns. One of the Blackshirts falls to the ground. The other cries out, clutching his leg in pain. He limps for the front door and joins the rest of the fascists as they flee, clearly surprised that they met armed resistance. Once they’re certain the Blackshirts are gone, Pietro and his brother share a worried glance. They’re not safe from danger yet. Their family is known for harboring communist sympathies, and now they’ve shot and killed a Blackshirt and wounded another. They have no choice but to flee their home. 

In the early 1920s, Fascism is on the rise in Italy. At the head of the movement is a former journalist and charismatic speaker, Benito Mussolini. Many Italians support Mussolini, who speaks to growing middle-class fears of a leftist revolution. But Mussolini doesn’t just blame society’s ills on socialists and communists. He uses his Blackshirts to attack labor unions, newspapers, and even families like the Fioravantis.

Then in late 1922, Mussolini threatens to march his Blackshirts on Rome and seize the government by force. But, to the surprise of many, the Italian King does not resist. He sees Mussolini as a strong man who can restore order to his broken country. So instead of calling on the army to defend the status quo, the Italian King names Mussolini Prime Minister and asks him to form a new government.

For over the next two decades, Mussolini will rule Italy with an iron fist. His fascism will inspire Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany. And together, these two leaders will lead the Axis powers in World War II, a conflict that takes the lives of as many as 60 million people. But this dark course of history was almost dramatically altered when a little-known Irish woman named Violet Gibson attempted to assassinate Mussolini and bring an end to his dictatorial rule, on this day, April 7th, 1926.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham, and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 7th, 1926: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini.

Act One

It’s a hazy afternoon in 1922 in a cemetery in England.

Violet Gibson, a 46-year-old Irish woman, stands in a black dress beside an open grave. Her mother and a few of her siblings loom nearby. Pallbearers march forward with a coffin. Resting inside is the body of Violet's favorite brother, Victor.

As the casket is lowered into the ground, memories of Violet’s childhood swirl in her mind. She remembers growing up with Victor on their family’s estate in Ireland. She recalls high-society, extravagant balls, and being presented to Queen Victoria’s court in London when she was 18. But that was all a very different life from the one she’s lived for the past 20 years. In her mid-20s, Violet converted to Catholicism and became spiritually and politically minded. Later, she moved to Paris to work for pacifist organizations. But Violet's adult life has been marred by tragedy. So many people close to her have died. First her sister-in-law, Victor’s wife, then her brothers, her father, her fiance, and now her most beloved brother, Victor.

The sound of shovels biting into the dirt shakes Violent from her thoughts as she returns to the sorrow of her brother's passing. Lately, Violet has been fixated on the idea of death, and on the religious concept of mortification.

About five years ago, Violet started following a Jesuit scholar who preached that acts of self-mortification, like whipping and fasting, were necessary for holiness. As Violet watches the final shovelfuls of earth fill Victor’s grave, she wonders whether death is the ultimate mortification.

Then, with the rest of her family, she turns and solemnly walks away from the cemetery. But unlike the others, Violet will struggle to bounce back from this tragedy. Her grief will cause her to retreat into her thoughts and become increasingly consumed by religious beliefs. 


About a year later, at a small, London estate, a young woman named Emily Corner sits by a second-story window. Emily’s mother, the housekeeper at this property, is out running errands. But Emily has stayed behind and engaged in one of her favorite pastimes: reading.

But just as she turns the next page, Emily hears the sound of car horns coming from outside. She glances out the window to the street below and sees a lone woman trying to cross in front of oncoming traffic. Emily’s eyes flutter with shock when she realizes the woman is the owner of this estate: Violet Gibson.

Emily gasps as an incoming car narrowly avoids hitting Violet who just keeps walking hardly seeming to notice the traffic around her. When Violet does finally reach the other side of the street, she doesn’t come inside the house where it’s safe. She turns around and starts crossing the street again.

Emily has heard rumors that Violet had a mental breakdown after her brother’s death. To Emily, Violet has always seemed slightly erratic, but this is different. So Emily runs downstairs, out the front door, and toward the curb. When she arrives, miraculously, Violet has made it across the street unscathed, again.

Emily calls out telling Violet to stop and come inside, but the old woman seems not to hear her. As Emily runs up to her, Violet starts to cross the street for a third time. Emily grabs her arm. But when Violet whips around, Emily sees she’s clutching something close to her chest: a knife.

Emily lets go of Violet’s arm and begins to back up, telling her to put the knife down. But Violet doesn’t listen. Instead, she takes two sudden steps toward Emily and slashes at her. Emily raises her hands to protect her face and feels a searing pain as the knife cuts her. She turns and dashes away, clutching her bloody palm, as people on the street run forward to intervene. 

Violet is then subdued without hurting herself or anyone else. But for the Gibson family, this act of violence is a breaking point. Violent's mother and sister force Violet to undergo a medical examination in which she is declared insane and confined to an asylum for six months. After her release, Violet travels to Rome under the supervision of a caretaker and takes up a residence in a convent.

There, Violet’s already deep religious views will take a dark turn. She will become convinced that God wishes her to make a sacrifice. And to this end, Violet will try to take her own life with a revolver. Though her suicide attempt fails, Violet’s violent notions do not subside. Instead, they will find a new focus. Eventually, for reasons that remain mysterious even today, Violet decides to sacrifice someone else: Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Act Two

It’s April 7th, 1926 in Rome, three years since Italian dictator Benito Mussolini came to power.

In a large building in the Roman capitol, Mussolini stands before a crowd of a few hundred people. The men gathered before him are surgeons who’ve come here from all over the world for an international conference. And Mussolini has the rapt attention as he tells them about the importance of their profession. He mentions the great tradition of surgery in Italy that stretches all the way back to ancient Rome. He tells them how vital surgery is, especially in times of war.

When he ends his speech, the surgeons applaud. Mussolini smiles and waves before heading for the exit. A few minutes later, he strides out into the fresh spring morning air followed by a small group of advisors. Waiting for him outside is a large crowd eager to lay eyes on the famous dictator who changed the face of Italy.

Since Mussolini became Prime Minister, the once-struggling Italian economy has all but bounced back, and order has largely been restored. Mussolini’s Blackshirts— now acting as Italy’s national militia — continue to crack down on Italy’s socialist and communist population. Still, in spite of his authoritarian leanings, many in the West, including in the US and the UK, admire Mussolini’s energy, and the change he’s been able to bring to his country.

Now, as Mussolini walks into the center of the crowd, he basks in the people’s love and adoration. Then he stops and raises his right arm in a fascist salute. The crowd quickly responds by mirroring his gesture. Mussolini can hear a group of students to his right chanting his nickname, “Il Duce” or “The Leader”.

But as Mussolini turns to address them, a gunshot suddenly rings out. Mussolini feels a sharp pain as a bullet grazes his nose. Then he feels warm blood pouring down his face. He turns to see a middle-aged woman just a few feet away, pointing a revolver in his direction smoke curling out of the barrel. Mussolini feels a momentary shock as she pulls the trigger once more, this time, the gun jams and doesn’t fire. Immediately, several members of the stunned crowd pounce on the woman. As they beat her to the ground and wrestle the revolver from her grasp, Mussolini’s advisors pull the wounded dictator away from the scene and into the safety of a nearby building.

His advisors place him inside a small room where they sit him down and lock the doors. One of them radios for assistance, while another begins frantically dressing Mussolini’s bleeding nose. But in a calm voice, Mussolini reassures them that he is fine and that the bullet just skimmed him. He tells his advisors that he is ready for a glorious death when that day comes, but not today, he jokes - and especially not at the hands of an ugly old woman like the one who shot him. Mussolini says he hopes the crowd didn’t kill her because he wants to talk and find out why she did what she did.

Not long after the gunshot rang out, the police took control of the scene and placed Violet Gibson under arrest. But their subsequent interrogation yields few answers. At first, Violet denies she shot Mussolini at all. Eventually, she confesses, claiming she did it for religious reasons. But then she contradicts herself and insists she doesn’t know why she shot him.

As investigators look into her background, some will seize upon her time in the asylum as a possible explanation for her actions. And when investigators speak to her family, Violet’s relatives also emphasize her mental illness.

Still, others disagree. The lead detective on the case comes to believe that Violet is feigning mental illness to cover for her political motivations and that she’s part of a larger anti-Facist conspiracy.

In the end, Mussolini will never learn the full story behind why Violet Gibson shot him. But Mussolini’s pride is deeply wounded by the entire affair. He, like the rest of his fascist regime, is deeply misogynist, and his ego is rattled by the fact that he was shot by a woman and a foreigner at that. So, instead of allowing a lengthy, public trial, Mussolini opts to quietly deport Violet back to England. But there, Violet will not live as a free woman. Instead, she will be forced to live in an institution for the rest of her days.

Act Three

It’s May 1927, at a train station in Rome.

Violet Gibson stands next to her sister, Constance, waiting for the train that will take her out of Italy.

Violet has spent the last year locked up in Rome. Initially, she was placed in a prison. But after attacking another inmate, she was moved to an asylum for the mentally ill. And this may have helped shift Italian authorities’ determination that Violet attacked Mussolini out of insanity and not political motivation. Soon after, she was released into the care of her family. Now, she and her sister Constance are on their way back to England.

As the train pulls into the station and comes to a stop, Violet and Constance pick up their bags and climb on board. Violet watches silently as Constance checks their tickets. Then, she leads Violet to their seats, where they sit down, wordlessly. They’ve hardly spoken since Violet was handed over by officials in Rome. Violet assumes they’ll have plenty of time to talk once they get to England and get back to a normal life. But Constance and the rest of the Gibson family have different plans in mind. Because when they arrive in England, Constance takes Violet to a doctor who certifies her as insane. Then, Violet is taken to an asylum, and she will reside there until her death in 1956.

But while Violet languishes in that institution, the rest of the world is thrown into chaos. Many of Mussolini’s admirers in the West change their opinion of the dictator when his strongman tactics inspire a new fascist leader in Germany's Adolf Hitler. Hitler and Mussolini will become close allies during World War II. And during the conflict, the two men will continue to influence one another. Mussolini will even open concentration camps in Italy for political dissidents and Italian Jews. But the war will go poorly for Mussolini, and public support will eventually turn against him.

Throughout his career, Mussolini managed to survive multiple assassination attempts, but Violet Gibson came the closest. It will be almost twenty years later, in the spring of 1945, when Italian partisans succeed where Violet failed. After being forced to flee Italy in the closing months of World War II, Mussolini is finally shot and killed after trying to escape the Allied advance and cross the border into Switzerland.

The legacy of Violet Gibson, like the truth behind her motivation to kill Mussolini, remains murky. It’s unclear whether or not Violet was acting with a sound mind. Today, some still subscribe to the belief that Violet acted with clear, political intent. Violet herself gave credence to this theory. While she was in prison, Violet seemed to suggest that she was working with members of the Italian monarchy to bring an end to Mussolini’s fascist rule. Even the nuns who took care of her at the convent in Rome believed she knew what she was doing. Still, most historians point to Violet’s erratic, and sometimes violent, behavior as evidence that mental illness drove her actions. Though the full truth may never be known, there is no doubt that Violet Gibson very nearly altered the course of history when she attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini, over a decade before the start of World War II, on April 7th, 1926.


Next on History Daily. April 10th, 1971. To thaw relations between the two superpowers, the US table tennis team arrives in the People's Republic of China, marking the start of what will come to be known as “Ping Pong Diplomacy”

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.