In Paris, France, on July 25, 1917, the exotic dancer Mata Hari is sentenced to death by a French court for spying on Germany’s behalf during World War I.

Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" Zelle MacLeod (a.k.a. Mata Hari)

Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” Zelle MacLeod (a.k.a. Mata Hari)

Since 1903, Margueretha Gertruida Zelle, born in a small town in northern Holland and formerly married to a captain in the Dutch army, had performed in Paris as a dancer.

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod-Zelle, the later Mata-Hari, (utmost left) and behind her captain Rudolph John MacLeod, her husband, on board the Prinses Amalia from the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland on their way to the Dutch East Indies, probably at Southampton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod-Zelle, the later Mata-Hari, (utmost left) and behind her captain Rudolph John MacLeod, her husband, on board the Prinses Amalia from the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland on their way to the Dutch East Indies, probably at Southampton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

She adopted the stage persona of Mata Hari, claiming she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient Indian dances by a priestess who gave her the name, which meant “eye of the dawn.” Her exotic dances soon earned her fans all over Europe, where she packed dance halls from Moscow to Berlin to Madrid, largely because of her willingness to dance almost entirely naked in public.

Mata Hari

Mata Hari

Mata Hari also became a celebrated courtesan, and by the outbreak of World War I, her catalog of lovers included high-ranking military officers and political figures from both France and Germany. The circumstances of her alleged spying activities during the war were and remain unclear: it was said that, while in the Netherlands in 1916, she was offered cash by a German consul to report back information obtained on her next visit to France. It appears that British intelligence discovered details of this arrangement and passed them on to their counterparts in France. In any case, Mata Hari was arrested in Paris in February 1917.

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest

Mata Hari on the day of her arrest

Under interrogation by French military intelligence, Mata Hari herself admitted that she had passed outdated information to a German intelligence officer, yet she claimed that she had also been paid to act as a French spy in Belgium (then occupied by the Germans), though she had not informed the French of her prior dealings with the German consul. She was apparently acting as a double agent, though the Germans had apparently written her off as an ineffective agent whose activities had produced little intelligence of value.

Mata Hari was tried in a military court and sentenced, on July 25, 1917, to execution by firing squad. As the Times of London reported on October 15, 1917, the day of her execution, “She was in the habit of meeting notorious German spy-masters outside French territory, and she was proved to have communicated important information to them, in return for which she had received several large sums of money since May 1916.” Her trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, however, and many believed the French authorities, as well as the press, trumped her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century” as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the Western Front. Viewed by many as a victim due to her career as a dancer and courtesan and the French need to find a scapegoat, Mata Hari remains one of the most glamorous figures to come out of the shadowy world of espionage, and the archetype of the female spy.

The execution of Mata Hari by a firing squad, October 15, 1917

The execution of Mata Hari by a firing squad, October 15, 1917

 

My post from a year ago today: The First Test Tube Baby

Advertisements

3 responses

  1. Janine says:

    I’ve heard her name many times, but never knew anything about her. Fascinating!

    Like

  2. Birgit says:

    I enjoyed reading about her since I was a kid not that I read a full book about her but I think she had such an appetite for recognition and attention that she loved the spotlight and didn’t realize what would befall her. If it was nowadays she would have her own reality show. She loved and was obsessed with attention

    Like