Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan, was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, after being convicted of being a German spy. There was little hard evidence against her at the time, but during the trial her defense attorney was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses or even question his own. Upon her arrest, the conviction seems to have been a foregone conclusion.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, was raised in a relatively well-off home until around the age of 13 when her father went bankrupt. Her parents divorced and when her mother died two years later, her father remarried. Margaretha went to live with her godfather and began to study to be a kindergarten teacher. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. When the headmaster began to flirt conspicuously with Margaretha, her godfather removed her from the school. Soon after, she left to live with an uncle in The Hague.
When Margaretha was 18, she answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod. He was looking for a wife. MacLeod was stationed in the Dutch East Indies, so after their marriage in July of 1895, they moved to the island of Java where Margaretha had two children and a disappointing marriage.
MacLeod was twenty years older than Margaretha, an alcoholic and openly kept a mistress. For a time, she left him and lived with another officer while she studied Indonesian customs and dance, and chose her stage name, Mata Hari. In 1899, her children became ill due to treatment for syphilis, contracted from their parents. Her daughter Jeanne survived, but the little boy Norman died. Eventually, the family returned to the Netherlands where Rudolf left her and took Jeanne with him.
In 1903, Mata Hari moved to Paris and began her career. She was flirtatious and openly flaunted her body; posing at times as an artist’s model, she also began to win fame as a dancer. She was seen as exotic and many other dancers began to imitate her style, but she was not held in esteem by serious dance critics and institutions. By 1912, her career was in decline and her last performance was in March of 1915. During this time, however, she had also begun her career as a courtesan and was having liaisons with many powerful men in both politics and the military.
Because the Netherlands remained neutral during World War I, Mata Hari was able to cross international borders rather freely. She probably attracted attention wherever she went and was even picked up and interrogated by Scotland Yard at one time. During her interview, she claimed to be working for French intelligence and was released.
In January 1917, French intelligence intercepted a German message between Madrid and Berlin which described the activities of a German spy with the code name H-21. The message was in a code that had been broken by British intelligence and contained information which allowed the authorities to determine the identity of H-21. It was Mata Hari, and on February 13, 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room in Paris. Although she wrote several letters to the Dutch Consul proclaiming her innocence, she was put on trial in July and convicted.
French intelligence had allowed Mata Hari to get the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of working for the Germans and were allowed to submit fake information. The sixth was suspected of being a double agent. Two weeks after Mata Hari took a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans. This was considered proof against her and sufficient for her arrest.
Eventually, in the 1970s, questions were answered when German documents were unsealed. These supported the claim that she was a spy. They gave details of her work for the Germans, including when she began, who she reported to and the name of her handler. They also revealed her code name, H-21.
Find out what else happened on October 15 in Women’s History.