Introduction: “I am not French, I have the right to have friends in other countries, even among those at war with France. I have remained neutral. I count upon the goodness of heart of you French officers.” – Court Martial in Paris, June 24, 1917.
Adam Zelle, a tradesman in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden, was to have a daughter of great charms. On August 7, 1876 Margaretha Geertruida was born. At 14 she began attending a convent school where she was taught domestic arts to prepare her for marriage.
On month before her 19th birthday she married Campbell MacLeod a Dutch army man of Scottish decent. He was 21 years older than Margaretha. Quickly Mrs. MacLeod gave birth to a son and a daughter. In 1897 she followed her husband to the Dutch East Indies where he had been given command of a battalion on the island of Java.
MacLeod was a drunk. He had numerous affairs and abused his wife. Once pointing a loaded gun at her. According to some a servant who had been mistreated by MacLoed poisoned him.
In 1902 Margaretha left her husband. Four years later the divorce would be made final. She left her daughter with some relatives and ventured to Paris.
In Paris she assumed the stolen identify of an East Indies Temple Dancer who had died at childbirth. By 1905 the charade was in full swing. Margaretha was tall, shapely with dark eyes and hair. Her complexion was slightly brown. With these characteristics she easily passed as Indian. The name she gave herself was Mata Hari, which means eye of the dawn.
Her career boomed, she was doing shows at theaters in Monte Carlo, Berlin, Vienna, Milan and Madrid.
Her mostly male audiences said they attended her shows to learn more about Eastern religions. However, in truth they came to see young women who danced for them virtually nude.
By the start of WWI in August 1914, Mata Hari was said to be the highest paid in her profession. Among the men she was seeing was Germany’s crown prince, the foreign minister, and the Duke of Brunswick. On the day the war started she was seen riding through the streets of the German capital with the chief of police.
In 1915 she was back in Paris. The French police thought she was there for espionage. She was detained by the French for that reasons. She denied all charges and offered to spy of the French. Surprisingly, the French agreed. They sent her to Germany with a list of six French spy contacts. Shortly after she arrived , one of the contacts on her list was captured and shot by the German’s. After the agents death the French moved Mata Hari to neutral Spain via a ship from the Netherlands.
The British forced the ship ashore at Falmouth on England’s Southern Coast on the belief that she was a German spy named Clara Bendix. She was released from the British when she convinced them that she was working for the French. Although, advised by the British to give up the spy business she continued to Madrid.
Once in Madrid she had no trouble forming liaisons with German military attachés. She was paid well for her services. What those services were remains the core mystery of the Mata Hari.
In late 1916 the Germans sent a message to Madrid that “Agent H-21” was being paid too much for her “service” and was to be given 5,000 ($159 US dollars today) francs and returned to Paris. The French secret police intercepted this message.
On February 12, 1917 Mata Hari checked into the Ritzy Hotel-Plazaénée and was immediately arrested as a German double agent. The evidence was the un-cashed check for 5,000 francs and a container of invisible ink, both found in her room.
During her interrogation Mata Hari claimed that the “invisible ink” was in fact a common disinfectant that she used as a contraceptive. As for the check for 5,000 francs, she claimed it was in exchange for sexual pleasures that she had performed for the German attachés in Madrid and not for any espionage activities.
After the interrogation she was taken to Saint-Lazare prison and assigned to cell 12. Past residents of cell 12 included the female assassin of a former French president and Margueritte Francillard, who had been executed as a spy.
Months of interrogations had proved fruitless. Her trial was on July 24, 1917. She was sentenced to death by firing squad. On October 15 she was awakened to find out this would be the day of her death. She was taken to Château Vincennes on the outskirts of the city. The firing squad was already there and set up by the time she arrived. They lined three sides of a square facing a tree that had been stripped of branches.
She accepted the traditional shot of Rum allowed to a condemned person. However, she refused to be tied to the tree or to wear a blindfold. Twelve shots rang out and her body fell to the ground.
Two stories abound about her death sentence. The first involves an admirer Pierre de Morrsac who was said to have bribed the firing squad to use blanks. Obviously, this plan either failed or never happened. The second story is that right before the firing squad pulled their 12 collective triggers Mata Hari opened her coat to show her murders her nude body. No proof of either story exists to my knowledge.