Mata Hari, from dancer to French intelligence

In 1917, Mata Hari was accused of being a double agent for Germany. She was executed by a French firing squad on October 15th.

Important dates

  • August 7th, 1876: birth of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, Leeuwarden, Netherlands
  • 1895:  Margaretha married Rudolf MacLoed
  • 1905: arrival in Paris to become an exotic dancer
  • 1914: began spying for French intelligence
  • February 13th, 1917:  arrested for counterintelligence
  • October 15th, 1917: Mata Hari was shot by the firing squad

The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, commonly known as Mata Hari, was born August 7th 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Mata Hari became known as the ‘Mistress of the French government’ after she was hired by Captain Georges Ladoux to obtain important data from enemy troop leaders.

Due to bad investments her father, a hat maker, went bankrupt. Soon after her mother died, forcing her and her three brothers to live with different households when she was only 15 years old.

At the age of 19, in July 1895, Margaretha got married to Rudolf MacLoed, a military captain based in Dutch East Indies after answering a newspaper ad a year prior. At a young age she decided to use her sexuality to escape poverty and started sending revealing pictures of herself in order to charm him. Without considering the 21-years gap that separates them. During these 9 years of marriage spoiled by her husband’s jealousy, Zelle gave birth to a daughter and son. Sadly, in 1899, her son was mysteriously poisoned by a servant. Soon, in the early 1900s, her husband left with their daughter.

At the age of 19, before she adopted the name Mata Hari, Margaretha married Rudolf Macleod in July of 1895. Macleod was a military captain based in the Dutch East Indies. Their relationship had started when Margaretha embraced her sexuality at a young age, by doing so, she was able to escape poverty. She would send the Captain revealing portraits of herself in order to charm him. Disregarding the 21 year age gap between them. The couple was married for 9 years and had two children, a son and daughter. In 1899 their son was poisoned by a servant and died. The marriage ended in the early 1900s when Macleod left with their daughter. The marriage had been spoiled by jealousy. 

Margaretha, not losing her ambitions to live a comfortable life, moved to Paris in 1905. She became the mistress of diplomats and she used her “exotic” look to her advantage, as at the time the “oriental” style had become a trend. She created an atmosphere around her character using cultural symbols from the Indies. Mata Hari “the eye of the day” (Indonesian) was born.

Mata Hari went “viral” democratizing striptease in different cities. So much so, that younger dancers started copying her style, giving her more notoriety. Margaretha did not stop charming and seducing government officials and men from the military in order to live, even when the conflicts leading to WWI went more virulent. She had lovers from each side of the borders and had the opportunity to travel during this time as she was a citizen of Holland (neutral at that time). Her citizenship and fame made her an ideal resource to both the French and British intelligence agencies. 

In her 40s, she began spying for Georges ladoux of the French intelligence to financially support her new lover, a young Russian soldier who got hurt during a mission. While trying to seduce her way to interesting data, she was labeled as a German spy in a communication that was intercepted by the French. She tried to explain that she was going to use the data discovered around her high ranked lovers but never had the opportunity. Some believe that the Germans made this communication on purpose already knowing that she was a French spy and made her look like a double agent in the eyes of her allies. Mata was arrested on February 13th, 1917 for counterintelligence and locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare.

Eventually, during her interrogation by Pierre Bouchardon, she declared she had been paid 20,000 francs by a German diplomat to gather information for Germany but never actually did it. Unfortunately for her, her trial took place while the Allies were losing ground to the Germans, and it was a good opportunity not to take the time to explain military losses. Georges lardoux had uncovered and exposed all incriminating evidence against Mata Hari.

In October 15th 1917, Mata Hari was shot by the firing squad after waving and blowing kisses to her executioners. Up until and after her death Mata Hari remains an enigmatic character that still fascinates many.  

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