92 years ago today, a would-be kindergarten teacher from a small town in northern Holland was sentenced to die for spying on Germany's behalf during World War I. Her trial was said to have been riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence. Many believed the French authorities, as well as the press, trumped her up as "the greatest woman spy of the century" as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the Western Front. The French needed to find a scapegoat. They gave the world Margueretha Gertruida Zelle. She gave us Mata Hari.
Some could argue that the shattering of her lavish early childhood - her wealthy father went bankrupt and divorced her mother who died shortly after - led her to the life she chose, but that would be omitting much.
Her studies to be a teacher were ended in disgrace due to the advances of her headmaster. She married a Dutch Colonial Army officer who had placed a newspaper ad seeking a wife - he turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. Neither of her two children survived to adulthood, possibly from complications relating to syphilis, contracted from their parents. The likely source? - her husband's affairs. Such tragedies filled her young life.
In 1903, at the age of 27, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider, using the name Lady MacLeod. Like many single women in today's economic downturn, she struggled to earn a living, turning eventually to her only asset, her body. She posed as an artist's model, but didn't begin to win fame until she fully cast aside her previous life, reinventing herself as the exotic dancer Mata Hari.
Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, she captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on 13 March, 1905.
Her exotic dances soon earned her fans all over Europe, where she packed dance halls from Moscow to Berlin to Madrid, largely because of her willingness to dance almost entirely naked in public.
She became a celebrated courtesan, and by the outbreak of World War I, her catalog of lovers included high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries, including the German crown prince, who paid for her luxurious lifestyle.
As a Dutch subject, Mata Hari was able to cross national borders freely. Avoiding the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain - her movements inevitably attracting attention.
On one occasion, when interviewed by British intelligence officers, she admitted to working as an agent for French military intelligence, although the latter would not confirm her story. It is unclear if she lied on this occasion, believing the story made her sound more intriguing, or if French authorities were using her in such a way, but would not acknowledge her due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.
Regardless, her new life began to crumble, when in January 1917, the German military attaché in Madrid transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy, code-named H-21. French intelligence agents intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Unusually, the messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, leaving some historians to suspect that the messages were contrived.
On 13 February, 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She was put on trial, accused of spying for Germany and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. She was found guilty and was executed by firing squad on 15 October, 1917, at the age of 41.
The Execution of Mata Hari in 1917.
Her dying words were purported to be "Merci, monsieur," but another source claims that, in an attempt to distract her executioners, she flung open her coat and exposed her naked body. "Harlot, yes, but traitor, never," she is reported to have said.
Thus, fueled by the fires of popular imagination - the idea of an exotic dancer working as a lethal double agent, using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers - a legend was born, forever casting Mata Hari as the archetype of the female spy.