The name Mata Hari has come to symbolize a female character that uses her feminine charms in order to find out the secrets of the enemy during a war. But was Mata Hari really a spy? And if so, for who?
“I’m not French. It is my right to have friends from other countries, even if they are from countries that are at war with France. I was neutral. And I count on your noble French hearts.” – Mata Hari
This is how Mata Hari sustained her actions in front of the French court on July 24, 1917. The three members of the courthouse left the room to deliberate. They returned after 10 minutes.
The courtesan, who presented herself as an Indian dancer, was sentenced to death by firing squad because she was a spy. The tortuous path began 41 years ago in Leeuwarden, northern Holland when on August 7, 1876, the daughter of Adam Zelle was born. Her name was Margaretha Geertruida.
When you marry an Alcoholic
At the age of 14, she was sent to a monastery school where she could learn the art of household. This was the best education for a young woman in her social class. But the normal life wasn’t for Margaretha Geertruida. One month before her 19th birthday, she married Rudolf MacLeod, a Scottish officer in the Dutch army. He was 21 years older than her.
The young lady MacLeod gave birth to a boy and a girl. By 1897, she followed her husband in the East Indies. MacLeod was a violent alcoholic who often beat his wife. It is said that he even threatened her with a revolver.
Their son died in mysterious circumstances. Some say that the child was poisoned by a servant mistreated by MacLeod. In 1902, shortly after they returned to the Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida separated from her husband and four years later she divorced. Leaving her daughter in the care of her relatives, the young woman headed to Paris for a new career.
A New Identity: Mata Hari
As a Dutch officer and a mother of two children, Margaretha would have no chance to “conquer” the French capital. But, as an exotic dancer, she could attract the attention. By 1905, she managed to build her new identity. From now on, she was the daughter of a dancer from one of the East Indies temples.
In order to replace her mother, Margaretha Geertruida dedicated herself to the Hindu god Shiva. That also meant that she had been initiated into the erotic rituals. Tall with black hair, black eyes and darker skin, she was easily seen as an Indian. The stage name she chose, Mata Hari, meant “eye of the day”.
After a debut among the Oriental collections at the Musee Guimet, Mata Hari continued to be successful in the elegant Parisian lounges. After Paris, she followed the theatres from Monte Carlo, Berlin, Vienna, Sofia, Milan, and Madrid. It seemed that the entire Europe was looking at her.
Most of her audience was formed by men. And those men claimed that they were attending the shows to learn more about Oriental culture. But in fact, they come to see a sensual young woman who dared to appear in public almost naked.
No wonder that the Mata Hari had countless admirers willing to pay for her favors.
At the end of 1915, Mata Hari returned to Paris, to recover her belongings from her home. Others suggest that she went back to Paris to help her injured Russian boyfriend.
The third reason for her visit, espionage, was signalled in an encrypted message sent by the Italian secret services: “The star called Mata Hari who claims to reveal the secrets of the Indian dance by stripping, has given up claiming that she was born in India and now speaks German with a vague Oriental accent.”
Detained by the French authorities, Mata Hari vehemently denied that she was a German spy, enthusiastically offering to work as a secret agent for France. The French accepted her offer and sent her along with six undercover agents to Belgium, which was occupied by the Germans at that time.
Soon after the initial plan, one of the agents was captured and shot by the Germans. However, the Frech had a new mission for Mata Hari: Spain. She had to get there with a ship leaving Holland.
The British forced the vessel to land at Falmouth on the southern coast of England and arrested Mata Hari, believing that she was a German spy, Clara Bendix. Somehow she convinced the Brits to release her. Even though she was advised to abort the mission, Mata Hari continued her journey to Madrid.
In the Spanish capital, Mata Hari quickly established links with the naval and military people of Germany.
The Invisible Ink
Towards the end of 1916, Berlin warned their two men from Madrid that they were spending too much for a so-called agent H-21. They had to send her back to Paris with a check of 5,000 francs, payable in a French bank. This message came into the hands of the French secret services.
On February 12, 1917, Mata Hari returned to Paris and settled in the elegant Plaza-Athenee hotel. The next day she was arrested for being a double agent of Germany. The evidence: the check of 5,000 francs and a bottle full of a substance, known as invisible ink.
Mata Hari explained during the interrogation that the invisible ink was a common disinfectant that she used as a contraceptive method. As for the check, she acknowledged that she had received it from two German soldiers, but as a payment of sexual favors.
She was unaware of the situation and she made ambiguous and unconvincing statements about the trips she took over the last two and a half years during the war. The former European star and the mistress of some important people, was now imprisoned at the Saint-Lazar prison.
An inconclusive trial
After months of interrogations, without any conclusive results, in which Mata Hari always held her innocence, the trial took place in front of the Parisian Court House on July 24, 1917. The president and two other members of the judging committee were convinced that Mata Hari was guilty, but the crowd gathered in the streets was waiting for a favorable verdict and hoped for an acquittal.
Mata Hari confessed that she witnessed military operations in Germany, Italy, and France, but only as a guest of one of her many admirers.
As for the 50,000 lives lost when the French ships were torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea, the French authorities had to find a scapegoat. So they accused her.
Waiting for the sentence
The death penalty wasn’t immediately fulfilled. In the following months, Mata Hari became increasingly nervous and depressed. She could sleep deeply only on Saturday night because there were no executions on Sundays. In the other nights, she went to bed knowing that a knock on the door could have meant her final moments.
She refused the lawyer’s offer to obtain a delay of the execution by getting her pregnant by him. Mata Hari preferred to put her hopes in a last-minute pardon from the French president, but her request was rejected.
Eventually, the knock on the door woke her up on October 15, 1917. In a veiled voice, the lawyer announced that she was about to die in that morning.
Out of respect for her reputation, the 41-year-old woman took care to look good. She was dressed in a pearl-colored dress, wide-brimmed hat and the best pair of shoes. She was ready to leave her cell after she put the gloves on. A car took her to Chateau Vincennes, outside the city.
The execution squad waited for her at the edge of the Vincennes forest. Twelve people were lined up in front of a tree trunk. Mata Hari stepped toward the trunk with a firm step. She refused to be blindfolded, preferring to look at her executioners. As the sun rises out of the mist, the firing squad listened to the command and fired. Twelve shots broke the silence and the soulless body of the “eye of the day” collapsed.
The reason for the exceptional behavior of Mata Hari before the execution was explained later by a bizarre story. A young admirer of Mata Hari named Pierre de Morrisac, would have paid the firing squad to load the guns with rubber bullets. It was supposed to be a false execution, but the plot was discovered and the weapons were loaded with real bullets, leading to the quick death of the victim. Mata Hari didn’t suspect anything.
Is this story true? Was she really a spy? It’s hard to say which version could be true, but one thing is for sure: the legend of the beautiful Dutch woman gave her immortality.