On This Day in 1917: Mata Hari. Top-level Courtesan And Second-Rate Spy.

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Dawn, Vincennes Barracks, October 15 1917.

Brought from her cell at the Saint-Lazare Prison less than an hour after hearing that her final appeal had been denied by the President of France, alleged superspy Mata Hari faced her firing squad seemingly calm and unafraid. She may well have led a somewhat ethically questionable life, but in death she seems to have shown considerably greater courage, fortitude and integrity than those who had conspired to place her there.

Mata Hari has long been the stuff of legend and myth, the glamorous, sexy superspy effortlessly using her feminine wiles and her physical charms to extract the highest level secrets from foolish, lecherous and indiscreet Allied officers through pillow talk before daringly passing the stolen secrets on to her German handlers. But how much spying did she actually do? What level of secrets, if any at all, did she manage to extract? Was she really the stuff of legend, a female James Bond with an equal talent for high-level espionage and flagrant promiscuity? Did she really cause the deaths of 50,000 Allied soldiers as her prosecutors claimed? Was she really, as has long been believed by so many, deserving of a place in the Pantheon of espionage legends?

The more firmly established facts of her life strongly suggest that the truth behind the legend (as is so often the case with legendary historical figures) is somewhat more prosaic than exotic. Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She was born in the Netherlands town of Leeuwarden on August 7, 1876. Far from being the exotic and high-born Javanese princess that she claimed to be, she was a perfectly ordinary and upper-middle class Dutch girl. She did, however, have a taste for high living and flagrant violation of the moral codes of her time (at least, the moral codes expected of women, anyway) and these characteristics were undoubtedly as responsible for her eventual downfall as any spying she may have done.

Mata Hari’s father was a wealthy man who had made his considerable fortune in the oil business. Her early childhood was fairly lavish and she was indulged accordingly, many might say she was spoiled compared to many children of the time. She was privately educated until the age of 13.  Early on, she developed a lifelong taste for lavish living.

All went well for Mata until 1889, when her father’s investments took a nosedive and he was suddenly declared bankrupt. To make matters worse, Mata’s mother then died in 1891. Unable to keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed, Mata’s father sent her to live with her godfather for a few months before she moved to The Hague to live with her uncle.


When she was 18 she met and soon married a Dutch Army officer with Scottish ancestry, Captain Rudolf MacLeod. The couple soon had two children. Captain MacLeod was then posted to the Dutch colonies in the Far East and Mata followed him out to Java. The marriage was unhappy almost from the start. MacLeod had a number of serious flaws as a husband and father, chief among them being that he was an alcoholic, repeatedly unfaithful and also had a fondness for brutally beating his wife on a regular basis including, on at least one occasion, using a cat o’nine tails.

Additional to his chronic drinking and serial spousal abuse, MacLeod also kept a native wife and a concubine as well. Not surprisingly, Mata left him at least once, for another officer, and also began the study of exotic dance. At this point she wrote to her relatives in the Netherlands, stating that she studied exotic dancing and had taken a new name. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle had now begun to transform into Mata Hari, a Javanese phrase meaning “Eye of the Day.”

Once her short-lived affair with MacLeod’s fellow officer had ended, she inexplicably returned to her husband and his drunkenness and philandering; the violence resumed. The marriage was by now hopelessly ruined and things were only to be made worse when the MacLeods’ son died in 1899, allegedly from congenital syphilis. The couple would finally separate in 1902 and eventually managed a bitter and acrimonious divorce in 1906. Captain MacLeod forcibly retained custody of their remaining child, a daughter who would die in 1921, possibly also of congenital syphilis.

Mata decided she needed a new start. She moved to Paris in 1903 and found work as a circus horse rider under the alias “Lady MacLeod” while also working as an artist’s model. By 1905 she was working (and gaining increasing fame) as an exotic dancer and again using her old stage name of Mata Hari. She became a contemporary of dance legends Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and she had all the attributes to become a star. She became promiscuous, flirtatious and showed that elusive “star quality.” As a born exhibitionist, she soon became a major name on the Parisian stage.

She also began her career of exploiting wealthy and lecherous men (while they equally exploited her), becoming the mistress of a millionaire industrialist from Lyons, Emile Guimet, the founder of the Paris Musee and a noted patron of the arts. She was still working as an artist’s model, distinguishing herself by always being willing to push the limits of the acceptable artistic standards of the time. She was often photographed either barely clothed or even fully nude which was shocking for the time. (Some of these nude pictures were used by a vengeful Captain MacLeod during their divorce case to show her as being of bad character. The pictures were an effective weapon for MacLeod, allowing him to retain custody of their daughter.)

Her false claims to be a Javanese princess of Hindu descent, rather than the ordinary Dutch girl she really was, coupled with her willingness to make her dancing and modeling as exotic and sexually charged as the times permitted, made her popular with audiences, but not with her peers. Even leaving aside the traditional backbiting so often associated with life in artistic circles, her peers considered her to be both a fraud and an untalented dancer.

Despite gaining initial popularity with audiences who believed her public image matched her real life, she soon acquired a legion of imitators who were both younger and at least equally gifted. Show business being a ruthless business then as now, her initial popularity began to wane and she was increasingly forced to look elsewhere for other means to retain the lifestyle that she enjoyed and had become accustomed to.

As her amount of dancing jobs began to decline she became a courtesan and had relationships with a number of senior businessmen, high-ranking military officers and political figures including the German Crown Prince, Frederick William Victor Augustus Ernest. Her wealthy and highly placed lovers would bankroll her luxurious lifestyle and indulge her taste for the high life until the outbreak of World War I.


The Netherlands were neutral in World War I. Being Dutch meant that Mata could cross borders between even warring nations of both sides and she did so frequently. She traveled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain to avoid the active battle areas. She still worked as a courtesan as well and kept the company of many Allied officers. When questioned by British intelligence, she claimed to be spying for the French, but the French denied this.

Mata was finally arrested on February 17, 1917 in Paris. She was accused of spying for Germany and of being responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 French soldiers.

The case against her was dubious and built on shaky foundations, if not entirely baseless altogether. There were, granted, a few black marks against her, but little or no conclusive evidence that she actually obtained or even tried to obtain high-level intelligence or to pass it on to the Germans. It is true that Mata met with members of German intelligence. It is true that she took money from them, sizeable amounts of money. But I haven’t been able to find any conclusive evidence that the German spymasters got any real return on their investment. It is possible that she may have passed on gossip and rumors (perhaps the type of pillow talk for which she was widely believed to have been collecting) but it is also entirely reasonable to say that Mata was in no way a female Kim Philby or Oleg Penkovsky.

The problem for Mata at her trial was the mere fact that she had actually met German spies and taken money from them, this during an extraordinarily brutal and bloody war and amid a climate of spy fever griping France at that time that was more than stoked up by the accusations against her.

It is said that she was approached as early as 1914 by members of German intelligence; some biographers even claim that she underwent espionage training in 1910 at a spy school near Basel in Switzerland. It is also alleged that she was set up in an expensive Parisian apartment and acted as a courtesan to senior Allied officers while secretly passing on top-level intelligence secrets to her German handlers. What is known is that she was spotted meeting the head of the Prussian secret service, Police President van Jagow, by British operatives in July 1914 only three days before the outbreak of war.

At her trial, being entirely unable to provide a legitimate explanation for that meeting, she admitted taking 30,000 marks from him. However, she also insisted firmly that it was a payment for entertaining German government officials and not for espionage services rendered. It has been suggested that the money was severance pay for prior espionage, but as war was only days away making a highly placed spy redundant when her most valuable phase was just beginning simply defies logic. I’m inclined to think, given her talent for dishonesty, that she simply took the money without necessarily providing anything more than easily-acquired pillow talk.

In addition to what is actually known about Mata’s alleged espionage, much has been speculated and many accusations have been made. Mata is accused of stealing the plans of the Verdun defenses, details from the crucially important “Plan 17.” She has also been accused of being the very head of a German spy ring in Paris, to have supplied the Germans with top-secret details of a then-new (and highly secret) weapon called a tank” and even of causing the death of the British army commander, Field Marshal Kitchener, by supplying secret naval information that allowed a German submarine to sink the British cruiser HMS Edinburgh on which Kitchener was traveling to Russia at the time. The fact remains that all of these allegations have been disproved.

To be fair to Mata’s accusers, other allegations are less easily given a reasonable explanation. One is that, while living in Amsterdam, she became re-acquainted with a shadowy German Army major with whom she frequently corresponded. Curiously, their correspondence was via the diplomatic bag. She claimed that the officer was a former lover from the time she had spent as a dancer in Berlin before the war, but the fact remains that this officer was also head of German espionage in the Netherlands before the war.

At one point she made an unexpected offer to spy for French intelligence. The French had already been specifically warned by British intelligence not to employ her as the British already regarded her with great suspicion. The French, however, viewed her as being worth the risk so they opted to test her with a false mission into occupied Belgium. She was issued a list of six contacts to meet and told to await further orders. Five of the six names belonged to known double agents while the sixth was a genuine Allied agent. Not long after her arrival in Belgium, the genuine agent was arrested and later shot. French intelligence took this as proof of her treachery. Unfortunately, British intelligence claimed the dead agent as one of their own who had only signed on with the French as well simply to collect double the wages. The British also claimed that he had been betrayed by a double agent operating in Paris, at a time when Mata was already in Belgium.

During her travels via Spain, Mata was found by the French in Madrid in the summer of 1916 and kept her under close surveillance. On spotting the French agent tailing her, Mata spoke to him and claimed to be spying on the activities of a German bank in Madrid and on the German Consulate in Vigo. French intelligence had, at that time, still received no reports from her.

In November 1916, Mata sailed from Spain for the Netherlands aboard the Hollandia. The ship was stopped in the Channel by a cruiser operating as part of the British naval blockade against Germany and ordered into the port of Falmouth where Mata was immediately arrested by Scotland Yard detectives as she stepped off the gangplank. British agents had been watching her in Spain and British intelligence, convinced that she was spying for somebody but they just did not know whom, decided to finally resolve just where her loyalty, if any, lay.

Enter Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard Special Branch (the UK’s police for political and diplomatic affairs), Basil Thomson. Thomson questioned Mata exhaustively about her activities and her acquaintances until she denied spying for Germany, but admitted spying for France. What confirmation the French gave Thomson at that time has never been clarified (and probably never will be), but at that time it was positive enough that Mata was released, whereupon she returned to Spain with a very ambiguous warning from Thomson. He told her “Madame, if you will accept the advice of one nearly twice your age, give up what you have been doing.” Whether Thomson was referring to spying, being a courtesan or simply pressing her luck has never been established.

Back in Madrid, broke and with no means of support, Mata approached the Germans for further funds and received a check for 15,000 francs. The German Embassy also sent a coded telegraph to their spymaster in Amsterdam stating “Agent H21 in Madrid. Has got herself into French service, but taken off by British cruiser and sent back. Demands instructions and money.” A reply soon arrived, “Good pre-war agent. We have given her nothing since the war. Let her have 15,000 francs.”

Damning evidence, one might think, were it not for the fact that the French had broken the German diplomatic cipher used in both messages and that the Germans were fully aware of that fact. So why effectively and deliberately destroy the cover of a highly-placed and effective agent? The reason was very simple. Mata simply was not a highly placed agent delivering top-level secrets. At least she wasn’t placed so highly that German intelligence would not deliberately sacrifice her to protect an agent of even greater importance.

Enter the Head of French Counter-Intelligence, Capitaine Georges Ladoux. Ladoux was an ambitious officer who had whipped up a storm of French suspicions by claiming that France was riddled with enemy agents while conveniently offering himself as the solution to the spy problem. There was, however, a small problem with Capitaine Ladoux’s offer to become the savior of France: He was a German spy himself.

This gave German intelligence (professionally) and Ladoux (professionally and personally) immense motive for deliberately sacrificing Mata by setting her up and then exposing her as though she were a major player in the spy game. The Germans wanted to protect their real superspy (Ladoux) by providing the French with a sacrificial lamb. In doing so and in having Ladoux be the one who exposed her, Ladoux’s position would be secured and the spy fever calmed before any really important agents were accidentally uncovered. Ladoux, in his position as France’s head spy hunter would be able not only to pass on huge amounts of genuinely vital intelligence, but would also be able to stymie and sabotage French efforts to catch genuine German agents; he could also identify French agents working behind German lines who could then be dealt with by the Germans and rise higher within French intelligence betraying ever more secrets (and doing ever greater damage) as he rose through the ranks.

It was on Ladoux’s orders that Mata was finally arrested on espionage charges after she made the foolish (and ultimately fatal) mistake of returning to Paris from Madrid. She was arrested at an exclusive Parisian hotel in February 17 1917 and, when her room and possessions were searched, the German check was found. The fact that she was given a check instead of untraceable (and this non-incriminating) cash is significant. Covert operatives, especially those operating in enemy territory and without diplomatic immunity to protect them, are usually paid in cash as it leaves no paper trail. For Mata, already suspected of being an enemy agent, being caught with a check of clearly German origin seems like a deliberate attempt to incriminate her still further as no competent spymasters would have made so basic and disastrous an error.

Mata’s trial began at the Palace of Justice in Paris, before Investigating Magistrate Pierre Bouchardon. It was a foregone conclusion before it even started. Even Bouchardon himself, supposed to be a fair and impartial arbiter as befits a judge, was to write later “From the very first interview I had the intuition that she was a person in the pay of our enemies. I had but one though – to unmask her.”

Mata’s checkered personal life, her promiscuity and alleged immorality in a time and place much more sensitive to such things then than nowadays, was also used against her to depict her as a person of low morals and thus exactly the kind of person who would operate as a spy.

The trial was held amidst both a war and a spy scare, with a clearly biased judge, little or no conclusive evidence, a hostile public, two intelligence agencies with a vested interest in securing a conviction and another with no interest in saving Mata whatsoever. There were also a great many wealthy and powerful military figures, politicians and businessmen who had previously courted Mata and who might well have wanted her permanently silenced, lest she give away details of their extra-marital activities. Mata Hari wasn’t so much the “Eye of the Day” as in the eye of the storm.

Mata Hari was found guilty and sentenced to die. 

execution of Mata Hari

On October 17, 1917 she was woken in the condemned cell at Saint-Lazare Prison to be told that her final appeal to the President of France had been summarily denied and that her execution would take place that morning. She dressed in her best clothes and wrote two final letters to be delivered by her lawyer and was then taken to Vincennes Barracks to be shot at dawn. The letters were, apparently, never delivered, one being to her daughter and the other, oddly, to the Investigating Magistrate Pierre Bouchardon.  The contents of neither have been revealed. Given the strictness of French secrecy laws and the fact that a sizeable portion of the Mata Hari documents are not to be made available until 2017, it seems that we will have to wait at least until then, assuming those letters still survive, to see what Mata had to say in her final moments.

Mata met her death with courage, dignity and fortitude. There were no histrionics and no hysteria as she was led to the place of execution. Indeed, the two prison matrons who escorted her were in tears and far more distressed than Mata herself.

She was not tied to an execution post as is normal with firing squads. She stood in front of a large hump of earth (to absorb stray bullets) and refused a blindfold, saying to her executioners “Must I wear that?” The officer said that she did not, and hurriedly marched away. Mata instead preferred to look her killers in the eye as they did their work.

“I am ready” were her last words before the order to execute was given.

Twelve rifles fired and Mata slumped to her knees with her legs twisted beneath her. An NCO marched over, drew a heavy-caliber revolver and fired a single bullet into Mata’s left temple, the traditional “Coup de grace,” to ensure she was dead.

Perhaps the most definitive epitaph for Mata came 30 years after her execution. One of the prosecutors at her trial stated in so many words that “There wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat.”

Mata Hari was, in my opinion, guilty of little more than sitting in at a game that was far, far above her head and, ultimately, beyond her comprehension. She was also a victim of the morality of her times, as her trial included no shortage of character assassination dressed up as evidence of how she extracted secrets through seduction. She fell prey to British Intelligence (who might well have been able to save her), French intelligence (who needed to placate public opinion with a high-profile cure for spy fever) and German intelligence (who, it seems, deliberately sacrificed her to protect their real superspy, Georges Ladoux).

Ladoux would eventually be unmasked, to the immense humiliation of French Intelligence, but far too late to be of any use in saving Mata from the firing squad. She was deserted by her considerable coterie of highly placed, influential lovers (whose discreetly exercised influence might at least have saved her from facing the firing squad, if not from a lengthy jail term). Perhaps they felt they were better off not risking their outwardly respectable public images or, more cynically perhaps, that the dead tell no tales.

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