On Monday October 15, 1917, one of the most famous spies of the First World War is executed at the Bois de Vincennes shooting field. Courtesan, acclaimed Oriental dancer, muse of the Belle Epoque, Mata Hari is accused of spying on France for Germany and is shot dead by the French authorities after a summary trial that revealed little truth. The former Dutch striper actually was nothing of the great spy whose alias makes many people still fantasize about her over a century after her death.
Actually named Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, Mata Hari was born on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, in Friesland, Netherlands. Daughter to a comfortable hatter, she goes to a renown school where she learns the arts, etiquette and foreign languages. But as a teenager, the young Margareth dreams of fame, acknowledgment and most of all, discovering the Parisian life she has dreamed of so many times.
Therefore, after her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s passing, as she is sent to a school training teachers in Leyde, the young 17-year-old replies to a classified advertisement in a local newspaper, a Scottish officer serving in the Dutch colonial army, Captain Campbell MacLeod. The couple gets married in 1895 and goes to Dutch Indies, Java, then Sumatra from 1897 to 1902.
After the failure of their marriage that will give birth to a boy and a girl, Margareth goes back to Europe in 1903 and decides to try her luck in Paris where she first works as a model for painters. Taking the pseudonym as Lady MacLeod on, she manages to pass herself off as an aristocrat lady thanks to her elegant clothes purchased with her last pieces of silver.
We must say her education has been very useful: she is fluent in English, German, French, Spanish and Javanese, she is able to hold a conversation even in the most mundane environments, and her peculiar physique, her mysterious exotic features, her dark complexion, her wide black eyes, her curly hair, and her slender look delight men who fell under her spell.
Decided to make a name for herself, Margareth proposes cirque Molier founder Ernest Molier an act as a horsewoman who recommends her to perform an undressed act. The Dutch agrees and rides in a light Hindu dancer outfit: Mata Hari is born. Her art career debuts with great pomp on the stage of the cirque Molier gathering on stage and in the crowds the greatest names of the aristocracy and art and mondain life of her time.
“I was born in the south of India near Jaffna Patnam on the Malabar coast to a Brahmin family. My father was called Ashirvadam, known for his piety and pureness of heart. My mother was a dancer who died giving birth to me; she was only fourteen. The priests who adopted me gave me the name Mata Hari which means Eye of the Day”, she tells about her origins.
For her years spent in Dutch Indies, Mata Hari learnt local customs and especially native dancing. On March 13, 1905, Emile Guimet invites her to perform in the museum he created, the Musée Guimet. The success of her performance as the goddess Shiva features the day after in newspapers.
In an article of Le Courrier Français dating of 1905, a journalist describes the young dancer’s performance: “She flutters under the veils undressing and revealing her. She looks nothing like we have seen before. Her breasts slowly rise, eyes are drowning. Hands reach out and fall back like moist with sun and ardor”.
Her career as an oriental dancer is launched and her acts, mixing Oriental dancing and stripping, become very coveted in mondain salons and very limited circles of men and women of the world, fond of novelty and exoticism, turning her into Paris heart-throb.
Flighty and extravagant, the dancer lives a luxury life, staying in the most beautiful hotels in European cities she performs in, spending without counting to the cost of her many conquests. But Mata Hari accords a lot of time and importance to her career as a courtesan and her artistic career. She has many lovers – high-up members of the military, politicians and more influent people and misses her chance.
After experiencing ups and downs, her career dries up and on the early days of the First World War, her dancing no longer attracts crowds as the trend is now more into Russian ballets than oriental acts. Penniless, Mata Hari can no longer life her great life and returns to Holland where she is reached, in November 1915, by German Consul General Carl Krämer entrusted with hiring individuals likely to help Germany collecting information.
Mata Hari accepts Krämer’s offer to collect and share to the German secret service information for 20,000 francs and a code name: H-21. After spending five weeks in Paris during which the young spy does not collect encouraging information, she is sent to the most famous German spy: Elsbeth Schragmuller aka Fräulein Doktor, to get trained as a spy.
Back to Paris on June 17, 1916, she ends up in Captain Georges Ladoux’s sights, the head of the Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence. Warned about the woman’s suspicious character by the British authorities, French counterespionage places her under the constant watch of the Grand Hôtel she is staying in.
Taken to the Ministry of War, she is questioned about her acquaintances with Germany. Madly in love with a young 15-year-younger Russian officer, Vadim Maslov, serving France and treated in Vittel for an eye injury, Mata Hari accepts Ladoux’s proposition: becoming a double agent and collect information about the enemy in exchange for a pass for Vittel and one million francs – never given to her.
Sent to Madrid – a genuine nest of spies of all nationalities, but mostly German – Mata Hari gets in touch with Captain Arnold von Kalle from the Reich embassy and seduces many German diplomats to worm out major information she rushes to send to the French counterespionage. But Kalle is not to be fooled and does not trust the spy.
When the Germans realize they can draw nothing interesting and the French are also using her, they send a series of telegrams to Berlin signaling “agent H-21 has made herself useful”, perfectly knowing the French secret services will be able to decipher the code used and discover the dupery. The trap closes around the spy who still decides to go back to France to get her reward for services rendered and meet her young lover.
On February 13, 1917, Mata Hari is arrested at the Elysée Palace hotel where she stays in and questioned the very same day by examining magistrate Pierre Bouchardon convinced of her guilt. Jailed in the Saint-Lazare prison for women, Mata Hari ends up confessing her allegiance to the enemy after 14 grueling interrogations. But the spy understands the risk she is running of being judged and minimizing her part and gets lost in failed attempt to justify herself, explaining she only delivered obsolete information to a German secret service agent.
The investigation is closed on June 21, 1917 and the closed trial of this “traitor to the nation” begins on July 24th of the same year. As Mata Hari has been cowardly gainsaid by Captain Ladoux and no concrete accusation not tangible evidences are presented, the 7 jury members, all men and members of the military, prefer emphasizing her “immoral and depraved” lifestyle. Others will say Mata Hari’s trial was mostly used as a propaganda to reaffirm the authority of France that wanted to hold on until victory, at the risk of shooting a woman to death.
Found guilty of sharing intelligence with the enemy in times of war, Mata Hari is condemned to death after an unfounded trial, although the nature and the extent of her activities were uncertain and the history will later show that Mata Hari was a rubbish spy who delivered only merely major information.
On Monday October 15, 1917, at dawn, the spy is led to the Bois de Vincennes, alongside a firing squad including Zouaves. Refusing until the very last moment to get blindfolded, Mata Hari is shot in the ditches of the Vincennes fortress, not without showing panache one last time.
Witnessing her last moments, Police prefecture chief doctor Léon Bizard reported Mata Hari’s composure in the face of death in his memoirs published in 1925: “While an officer reads the judgment, the dancer – who refused to be blindfolded – boasting a lot walks by herself to the pole, a rope that is not even tied, wrapped around her waist… […] Mata Hari smiles again to her sister Leonide, kneeled and waving goodbye. The commanding officer rises his sword: a crack followed by a less dazzling final blow and the Red Dancer collapses, her head tilting forward, motionless mass covered in blood”.
Find out more:
Bois de Vincennes
Plaine de la Belle Etoile
75012 Paris 12
Mata Hari au Musée Guimet
Permis de séjour accordé à Mata-Hari. Service Historique des Armées