A short account of the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy in revenge for the brutal suppression of a workers' demonstration in Milan which left hundreds dead.
See also our biography of Gaetano Bresci
Occurring a year before the assassination of President McKinley in the US, the attentat against King Umberto I of Italy by silk weaver Gaetano Bresci took place in the midst of argueably the most violent period of anarchist history, when the tactic of "propaganda by the deed" was being employed to the full by individual anarchists.
An immigrant to the US in the late 1890s, Bresci had helped found an Italian anarchist newspaper in the manufacturing town of Paterson, New Jersey. However, in the spring of 1900, Bresci shocked his comrades at the newspaper by asking the return of a loan he had used to help pay the printing costs. Refusing to explain his behaviour, he left the US in May 1900 to seek out King Umberto and commit his attentat.
Landing in La Havre, he made his way to Paris and from there began the long trek to Italy, eventually arriving in the small town of Castel San Pietro near Bologna. Staying at an inn owned by a relative, Bresci acquired a revolver and began target practice in the yard. Hearing of the King's plans to stay at the Royal house in Monza, he quickly departed for Milan and from there made his way to Monza, where he arrived on July 26.
After observing the royal party's movements for several days he decided to act on July 29, while the king was scheduled to distribute prizes to athletes after a sporting competition.
Arriving to scattered applause on the evening of the 29th in an open air carriage, the king climbed the podium and distributed medals to the athletes. After a short word of congratulations, Umberto descended the platform and got back into his carriage. As he sat down, Bresci burst from the crowd brandishing a revolver and fired four times. The king died seconds later having been hit three times in the chest, with one shot going wide of its target. Bresci was quickly tackled by police agents and arrested.
Bresci stood trial and in late August and was found guilty of assassinating the king. After serving less than a year of his life sentence on the island prison of Santo Stefano, he was found dead in his cell, in extremely suspicious circumstances.
Many political assassinations committed during the "propaganda by the deed" period were in response to or in revenge for specific acts of repression. Just as the anarchist Ravachol had seven years earlier launched a bombing campaign against specific members of the French judicial system in response to the deaths of nine people after police had fired on a workers' demonstration, similar reasons had driven Bresci to his attack on King Umberto.
In court, Bresci declared that he had wanted to "avenge the people killed by Bava-Beccaris". The incident that he is referring to, and which throughout his trial he cited as the motivation behind the assassination, occurred in Milan on May 6 1898.
The late 1890s had seen an upsurge in radical activity in Italy. Rising food prices led to many socialist and anarchist inspired strikes and anti-government protests, particularly in the areas of Bologna and Lombardy. By the spring of 1898 the strikes and protests began to spread southwards, gaining momentum in Tuscany and giving extra impetus to the influential anarchist presence there.
As the strike movement began to spread across the country, increasing repression from the authorities followed it. A state of siege was declared across Tuscany in early May due to the increasingly insurrectionary nature of the strikes and protests in the region. Anarchist and socialist press was suppressed and workers suffered brutal attacks at the hands of the police and carabinieri.
The protests came to a head with a massive demonstration in Milan on May 6. Thousands of workers and their families marched towards the Royal Palace in the city, which was under heavy police and military guard. Taking their anger at the high price of bread out on obvious targets, many hungry workers attacked and raided bakeries along the way, taking whatever bread they could lay their hands on. As the rioting approached the palace, troops under the command of General Bava-Beccaris were ordered to fire on the demonstrators. Cannons were fired at zero elevation, and many volleys of rifle fire hit the crowds, some at almost point blank range.
The exact number of people who died on the streets of Milan that day is not known for sure, and estimates wildly differ. Although it is most likely that between 150-400 people were killed with at least 1,000 wounded.
General Bava-Beccaris was later decorated by King Umberto, who told him he had "rendered a great service to the king and to the country".
From when he had first heard of the massacre while working in the silk mills of Paterson, Bresci had never considered that he was to kill just a man. As he declared to his audience seconds before he was arrested on July 29, "I have not shot Umberto. I have killed the king, I have killed a principle". Just as many protagonists of propaganda by the deed before and after him, he had been driven to a violent act, whether considered useful or not to the anarchist cause, in response to a specific act of brutality directed against workers.