Mata Hari: Feminist The World Wasn’t Ready For

Published August 7, 2016
Updated October 24, 2018

Mata Hari was the leading lady in a story of sex, espionage, and war. A century after her execution, her name is still synonymous with intrigue.

Photograph Of Mata Hari

Wikimedia CommonsMata Hari in the bare minimum of her costume.

Many know the name Mata Hari, but far fewer know exactly which parts of her story are fact and which are fiction.

What we do know is that she was well-traveled and fluent in over seven languages, and that during World War I, her charm and romantic exploits landed her in a web of espionage so tangled that not even her fame could save her.

Mata Hari’s Early Life

Mata Hari In Bra

Wikimedia Commons

The details of Mata Hari’s life prior to her purported war crimes are more sad than they are glamorous.

Born Margaretha Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, her mother died when Zelle was only 14. Her father remarried, and sent her and her three younger brothers to live with other family members. After being expelled at age 16 for having a sexual relationship with a school headmaster, she ran away to live with her uncle in The Hague.

Just two years later, she answered a lonely hearts ad written by a 39-year-old Dutch army captain, Captain Rudolf MacLeod, who lived in Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies). The two married in 1895, but the union was not a very happy one.

MacLeod drank frequently and kept a mistress — something that didn’t sit too well with his new wife, who secured an extramarital lover of her own. At this point, she also began studying Indonesian culture, which would prove handy later on.

The couple had two children, both of whom fell very ill in 1899. Their son, Norman, died that year at the age of two, but his sister, Jeanne, survived. Norman’s cause of death remains unknown, though it has been said that he and Jeanne contracted congenial syphilis from their philandering parents. The couple, however, maintained that one of MacLeod’s enemies poisoned the children.

MacLeod would soon be discharged from the Army, and the couple returned to the Netherlands where in August 1902 they parted ways.

Jeanne mostly stayed with her mother, but one day MacLeod did not return her after a scheduled visit. Without the financial means to fight a custody battle, in 1903, Zelle would move to Paris without her daughter.

The Paris Years

Luxurious Gowns

Wikimedia Commons

At first, Zelle turned to prostitution to support herself, but soon found work as a horse rider in the circus. To fill in the gaps, she also worked as an artist’s model, and in 1905 found a small measure of success as a dancer.

There, she took the stage name Mata Hari — claiming she was an Indonesian Hindu Princess — and honed her provocative, quasi-religious “sacred dance,” what we now know as a strip-tease.

After her debut at the Musée Guimet, a museum dedicated to Asian art, the name Mata Hari would be known all over Europe. Men around the world would covet her, but she only had eyes for military officers — a taste which may have spelled her ultimate undoing.

War Breaks Out

Mata Hari Live Performance

Wikimedia Commons

Given the Netherlands’ neutral stance in World War I, Mata Hari had no trouble crossing national borders. And she did exactly that — and often — which is one reason why her name appeared on a watch list of suspected spies.

What happened next depends on your source. It remains unclear whether she was definitely a spy for the Germans or for the French — particularly which she agreed to first and for what reason.

What we do know is that in 1914 she apparently had personal property (furs and some costumes) confiscated at the German border, at which point a German consul gave her money to extract information from the many army officers she bedded. It’s also believed that a French officer extended the same offer in 1916, which she accepted to earn money for a war-injured Russian lover.

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.”

Mata Hari’s Execution And Legacy

Mata Hari Picture

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.”


After reading about Mata Hari, 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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