Mata Hari: Feminist The World Wasn’t Ready For

Published August 7, 2016
Updated January 8, 2018

The Arrest And Trial Of Mata Hari

Black Dresses

Wikimedia Commons

When a ship she was aboard entered the English port of Falmouth, police arrested Mata Hari and brought her to London, where in 1916 Sir Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard interrogated her. While ultimately released from custody, things began to snowball quickly from this charge of counter-espionage.

In January 1917, an officer at the German Embassy in Madrid sent a coded message to Berlin outlining the activities of a spy named H-21. The French intercepted this message, and identified H-21 as Mata Hari. Some believe that German intelligence knew this code had already been cracked — therefore setting her up for the fall.

Nevertheless, Mata Hari’s trial, to be held at a secret military tribunal, was set for July. The charges included spying for the Germans, making her responsible for the death of some 50,000 soldiers.

On the stand, Mata Hari admitted to taking the German consul’s money, but said she didn’t do the deeds he asked of her. She likewise added that she considered the money payment for her formerly confiscated property. Regardless, the French didn’t believe that she was innocent, and alleged that she possessed invisible ink, which would incriminate her as a spy.

Mata Hari insisted that the alleged ink was instead part of her makeup kit, but that didn’t seem to help her case. On the next day of the trial, the defense wasn’t allowed to question any of the witnesses that could have cleared Mata Hari’s name.

She could only write letters to the Dutch Consul, proclaiming her innocence: “My international connections are due of my work as a dancer, nothing else …. Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.”

Execution and Legacy

Passport Arrest Day

Wikimedia CommonsLeft: Mata Hari’s passport, Right: On the day of her arrest.

Regardless of the truth about Mata Hari’s guilt or innocence, her fate was sealed: Death by execution, to be carried out on October 15, 1917.

As with her life, the details of her execution are mired in mystery. Some say she blew a kiss to the firing squad before they opened fire. Others insist she opened her dress and flashed the squad moments before her death – her last farewell to men in uniform.

Perhaps the most believable is this journalist’s eyewitness testimony: “She displayed unprecedented courage, with a small smile on her lips, just like in the days of her great triumphs on stage”. Nobody arrived to claim her body.

Historians still argue over the facts — if Mata Hari was indeed a double agent, or a spy at all. With every recounting of her story more convoluted than the last, it seems that she was, if anything, a victim of sexual politics: She was not a chaste, self-sacrificing woman, so she was not to be trusted.

As Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo, who is writing his own book on Mata Hari, said, “Mata Hari was one of our first feminists, defying male expectations of that time and choosing instead an independent, unconventional life.”

The French government will declassify the Mata Hari papers in 2017. Until next year, “we cannot know the full truth,” Evert Kramer, custodian of a large collection of Mata Hari memorabilia at the Fries Museum in Leeuwaarden told the Independent. But “even then,” he added, “I doubt whether the full story will be revealed.”

Next, learn about the most famous American spies. Then, hear the strange tale of what happened to famous corpses.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.
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