Photo of the Day

Mata Hari. Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod (née Zelle; 7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917).

Mata Hari

“I am ready”

I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I lose, sometimes I win

–  Mata Hari

In February 1917, a French judge and a dozen police officers barged into Suite 113 in a luxurious hotel on the Champs Elysées. The beautiful female occupant appeared – naked, according to one account – and handed around chocolates in a captured German helmet.

Ten months later, the woman, was shot as a German spy by a military firing squad in the forest of Vincennes, east of Paris. She was a dancer, not a soldier and probably never much of a spy. She came from a country, the Netherlands, which was not even involved in the Great War.

Mata Hari, (Margaretha) was a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and accused spy who was executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.

Hari was also a successful courtesan, though she was known more for her sensuality and eroticism rather than for striking classical beauty. She had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries. Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.

Though she was executed by the French for espionage on October 15th, 1917 and her name is practically synonymous with “female spy,” it is unlikely that she was guilty of the crime for which she was executed and may have been used as a scapegoat by the real culprit.

Behind the legend of the ‘maneater’ executed for seducing soldiers and selling their secrets is the story of an abused woman who was forcibly separated from her daughter.

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod-Zelle, the later Mata-Hari, (utmost left) and behind her captain Rudolph John MacLeod, her husband, on board the Prinses Amalia from the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland on their way to the Dutch East Indies, probably at Southampton.

Since her execution on the outskirts of Paris a century ago, the Dutch exotic dancer Margaretha “Gretha” MacLeod – universally known as Mata Hari – has been synonymous with female sexual betrayal. Convicted by the French of passing secrets to the enemy during the first world war, MacLeod’s prosecutors damned her as the “greatest woman spy of the century”, responsible for sending thousands of Allied soldiers to their deaths. MacLeod’s status as both a foreigner and a divorcee, who was unrepentant about sleeping with officers of different nationalities, made her a perfect scapegoat

When MacLeod is remembered, it is never as a mother. But, to coincide with the 2017 centenary of her death, a Dutch publisher has released an astonishing cache of her letters, which reveal the hitherto unseen maternal side of her character. Edited by Lourens Oldersma, they chronicle her struggle to establish a new life with her daughter after leaving an abusive marriage. Without financial support, however, she faced the brutal choice of poverty or taking, as she described it, “the road to perdition”.

“The letters make her much more human,” says Yves Rocourt, curator of an upcoming exhibition on Mata Hari at the Fries museum in her hometown of Leeuwarden. “You’ve got to admire her for continuing to rebuild her life after it crashed down.” The exhibition will feature artifacts from MacLeod’s early life, and her ability to overcome tragedy and to reinvent herself, a very modern concept, is central to understanding her character. “She’s a strong woman, no matter what you think about her actions.”

Until now, biographers’ only access to Margaretha’s writing has been the interrogation transcripts leading up to her espionage trial in 1917 and her prison letters held in the French military archives. The new collection, Don’t Think That I’m Bad: Margaretha Zelle Before Mata Hari (1902-1904), reveals that this so-called “maneater” who danced at La Scala in Milan, the Opera in Paris and private salons across Europe actually had an active dislike of sex. “My own husband has given me a distaste for matters sexual such as I cannot forget,” she wrote, confirming that, while in the Dutch East Indies, she had contracted syphilis from John and, as a precaution, her daughter Non was subjected to mercury treatment.

The correspondence reveals her desperation to keep her daughter but, without family connections and with most professions barred to women, she had few choices. She reluctantly returned Non to her father and left for Paris. “I thought all women who ran away from their husbands went [to Paris],” she later said.

Once settled into her new life, but “yearning for Nonnie”, she wrote again to Edward, explaining that her husband’s suggested reconciliation was impossible because of his abusive behaviour. “One Sunday afternoon, crazed and deranged, he came close to murdering me with the breadknife,” she wrote. “I owe my life to a chair that fell over and which gave me time to find the door and get help.” According to Margaretha, John suffered from what one doctor called tropical frenzy and “others called ‘sadism’”.

Without Non, she felt lost. “I can get by well here in Paris,” she wrote, “but I am abstaining from everything for my child (so far). In the event that I am certain of never again being able to have her with me as her mother, then I shall care no longer and shall cast everything aside.” She tried every means to earn money respectably, giving piano lessons, teaching German, applying to work as a ladies’ companion and as a model a department store. Less respectable, but more lucrative, was sitting as an artist’s model for Montmartre painters such as Edouard Bisson, Octave Denis Victor Guillonnet and Fernand Cormon, where she made important theatrical contacts.

Poignantly, in the last letter in this collection, written on 28 March 1904, Gretha had returned temporarily to Holland, but was contemplating suicide after missing “my child, my house, my comfort.” She had secured a temporary lifeline, a part in a play with a theatre company, but confessed to sleeping with men for money. “Don’t think that I’m bad at heart,” she told Edward. “I have done it only out of poverty.”

Mata Hari and her husband Captain Rudolf MacLeod.

The late actor Peter Ustinov used to tell a great anecdote about his very short career in espionage. An MI5 operative had arranged to meet him at London’s Sloane Square Tube station for interview. Ustinov was there on time. He waited. And waited. He saw no-one. Later he called a number to find out what had gone wrong. The voice on the other end of the line told him that the handler had been there at the arranged time. Ustinov hadn’t noticed him. But the spook had noticed Ustinov and deemed him too recognisable to make it as a spy. The aim of any good spy is to be unremarkable. Ustinov was anything but.

Which brings us to Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod (née Zelle; 7 August 1876 – 15 October 1917), popularly known as Mata Hari, the Dutch-born exotic dancer and escort executed by the French in 1917 on the charge of spying for Germany during World War I and contributing to the deaths of 50,000 men.

Which brings us back to Ustinov’s tale: how did a beautiful and famous woman work as a spy?

It was convenient for the generals to blame a sexually confident female from neutral Holland for disasters on the battlefields. The French were losing the fight. They needed a common cause to rally the troops and people. They needed a scapegoat for the slaughter. And there she was a frontline stripper and foreign-born courtesan with friends in high places.

Margaretha enjoyed a well-fed childhood in an ordinary family home in Leeuwarden – until her father’s hat business failed. He went bankrupt when she was 13, and started a new life with another woman. Soon after her mother Antje Zelle died. Margaretha, 15, and her three brothers were split up and sent to live with various relatives.

In a world where women were subjugated, Margaretha, a resourceful survivor with a lust for life, wanted an escape. And so began the next chapter in the extraordinary life of a girl described by school friends as “an orchid among the buttercups”.

Margaretha did not get along with her stepmother and so went to live with her godfather. She started studying to be a kindergarten teacher, but when the headmaster of her school began to flirt with her the outraged godfather removed her from the school. This caused her to become estranged from him, so she went to live with an uncle instead. Early in 1895 the 18-year-old girl answered a marriage advertisement placed by a Dutch Colonial Army officer named Rudolf MacLeod and moved with him to Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies.

Mata Hari 1910.

Margaretha married MacLeod in Amsterdam on 11 July 1895. He was the son of Captain John Brienen MacLeod (a descendant of the Gesto branch of the MacLeods of Skye, hence his Scottish name) and Dina Louisa, Baroness Sweerts de Landas. The marriage enabled her to move into the Dutch upper class, and her finances were placed on a sound footing. They moved to Malang on the east side of the island of Java, travelling out on SS Prinses Amalia in May 1897, and had two children, Norman-John MacLeod and Louise Jeanne MacLeod (Non).

Her marriage was not a happy one; the first of her two children died at the age of two from congenital syphilis, and her much-older husband was a violent alcoholic who beat and otherwise mistreated her; as if that weren’t bad enough, he openly kept a second native wife and also a concubine. Margaretha temporarily left him, moved in with another Dutch officer, and began studying Indonesian culture; she soon joined a local dance company, and at that time first assumed her stage name Mata Hari, Indonesian for “eye of the day” (i.e. the sun).

At MacLeod’s urging, Margaretha returned to him, but his behaviour did not change. She escaped her circumstances by studying the local culture. In 1899, their children fell violently ill from complications relating to the treatment of syphilis contracted from their parents, though the family claimed they were poisoned by an irate servant. Jeanne survived, but Norman died. Some sources maintain that one of MacLeod’s enemies may have poisoned a supper to kill both of their children. After moving back to the Netherlands, the couple officially separated on 30 August 1902. The divorce became final in 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Jeanne. MacLeod was legally required to pay support, which he never did, making life very difficult for Margaretha and her daughter. During a visit of Jeanne with her father, MacLeod decided not to return Jeanne to her mother. Margaretha did not have resources to fight the situation and accepted it, believing that while McLeod had been an abusive husband, he had always been a good father. Jeanne later died at the age of 21, also possibly from complications relating to syphilis.

They separated in 1902 and divorced in 1906, with her husband retaining custody of their daughter.

Mata Hari, coloured photograph, 1899.

Margaretha moved to Paris, where she joined the circus as a horse rider (under the name Lady MacLeod), and an artist’s model. But since neither of these trades was very profitable she became an exotic dancer under her stage name, Mata Hari. By 1905 she was wildly popular and soon became the mistress of a millionaire industrialist named Emile Guimet; her publicity claimed that she was a Javanese princess who had practiced sacred Hindu dance since childhood. She was photographed numerous times during this period, often nude, and some of these pictures were used by her husband in their divorce to argue that she was an unfit mother.

Mata Hari began to win fame as an exotic dancer. She was a contemporary of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, leaders in the early modern dance movement, which around the turn of the 20th century looked to Asia and Egypt for artistic inspiration. Critics would later write about this and other such movements within the context of Orientalism. Gabriel Astruc became her personal booking agent.

Promiscuous, flirtatious, and openly flaunting her body, Mata Hari captivated her audiences and was an overnight success from the debut of her act at the Musée Guimet on 13 March 1905. She became the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who had founded the Musée. She posed as a Javanese princess of priestly Hindu birth, pretending to have been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood. She was photographed numerous times during this period, nude or nearly so. Some of these pictures were obtained by MacLeod and strengthened his case in keeping custody of their daughter.

Mata Hari brought a carefree provocative style to the stage in her act, which garnered wide acclaim. The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jewelled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about being small-breasted. She wore a body stocking for her performances that was similar in colour to her own skin.

Although Mata Hari’s claims about her origins were fictitious, it was very common for entertainers of her era to invent colourful stories about their origins as part of the show. Her act was successful because it elevated exotic dance to a more respectable status and so broke new ground in a style of entertainment for which Paris was later to become world-famous. Her style and free-willed attitude made her a popular woman, as did her eagerness to perform in exotic and revealing clothing. She posed for provocative photos and mingled in wealthy circles. Since most Europeans at the time were unfamiliar with the Dutch East Indies, Mata Hari was thought of as exotic, and it was assumed her claims were genuine. One evidently enthused French journalist wrote in a Paris newspaper that Mata Hari was “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” One journalist in Vienna wrote after seeing one of her performances that Mata Hari was “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair” and that her face “makes a strange foreign impression.

By about 1910, myriad imitators had arisen. Critics began to opine that the success and dazzling features of the popular Mata Hari were due to cheap exhibitionism and lacked artistic merit. Although she continued to schedule important social events throughout Europe, she was held in disdain by serious cultural institutions as a dancer who did not know how to dance.

Mata Hari’s career went into decline after 1912. On 13 March 1915, she performed in what would be the last show of her career. She had begun her career relatively late for a dancer, and had started putting on weight. However, by this time she had become a successful courtesan, known more for her sensuality and eroticism than for her beauty. She had relationships with high-ranking military officers, politicians, and others in influential positions in many countries. Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.

During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Mata Hari was thus able to cross national borders freely. To avoid the battlefields, she travelled between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain, and her movements inevitably attracted attention. During the war, Mata Hari was involved in what was described as a very intense romantic-sexual relationship with a Russian pilot serving with the French, the twenty-five year old Captain Vadim Maslov, whom she called the love of her life. Maslov was part of the 50,000 strong Russian Expeditionary Force sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916.

In the summer of 1916, Maslov was shot down and badly wounded during a dogfight with the Germans, losing his sight in both eyes, which led Mata Hari to ask for permission to visit her wounded lover at the hospital where he was staying near the front. As a citizen of a neutral country, Hari would not normally be allowed near the front. Hari was met by agents from the Deuxième Bureau who told her that she would only be allowed to see Maslov if she agreed to spy on Germany.

Before the war, Hari had performed as Mata Hari several times before the Crown Prince Wilhelm, eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II and nominally a senior German general on the Western Front. The Deuxième Bureau believed she might be able to obtain information by seducing the Crown Prince for military secrets. In fact, his involvement was minimal and it was German government propaganda that promoted the image of the Crown Prince as a great warrior, the worthy successor to the august Hohenzollern monarchs who had made Prussia strong and powerful. They wanted to avoid publicising that the man expected to be the next Kaiser was a playboy noted for womanizing, partying, and indulging in alcohol, who spent another portion of his time intriguing with far right-wing politicians, with the intent to have his father declared insane and deposed.

Scrapbook of Mata Hari in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.

Unaware that the Crown Prince did not have much to do with the running of Army Group Crown Prince or the 5th Army, the Deuxième Bureau offered Hari one million francs if she could seduce him and provide France with good intelligence about German plans. The fact that the Crown Prince had, before 1914, never commanded a unit larger than a regiment, and was now supposedly commanding both an army and an army group at the same time should have been a clue that his role in German decision-making was mostly nominal. Hari’s contact with the Deuxième Bureau was Captain Georges Ladoux, who was later to emerge as one of her principal accusers.

One of the many stories spread about her by her military accusers was that she bathed in milk, “at a time when there is not enough milk for our children”. There is no evidence that she ever did so but it is clear that she liked to live in some style. When briefly arrested by the British in 1916, she was travelling with 10 trunks of luggage, containing, amongst other things, 11 pairs of shoes and 33 pairs of stockings.

In November 1916, she was travelling by steamer from Spain when her ship called at the British port of Falmouth. There she was arrested and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. He gave an account of this in his 1922 book Queer People, saying that she eventually admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau. Initially detained in Cannon Street police station, she was then released and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. A full transcript of the interview is in Britain’s National Archives and was broadcast, with Mata Hari played by Eleanor Bron, on the independent station LBC in 1980. 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.

In late 1916, Hari travelled to Madrid, where she met with the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle, and asked if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince. During this period, Hari apparently offered to share French secrets with Germany in exchange for money, though whether this was because of greed or an attempt to set up a meeting with Crown Prince Wilhelm remains unclear.

In January 1917, Major Kalle transmitted radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21, whose biography so closely matched Hari’s that it was patently obvious that Agent H-21 could only be Mata Hari. The Deuxième Bureau intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. The messages were in a code that German intelligence knew had already been broken by the French, suggesting that the messages were contrived to have Zelle arrested by the French.

General Walter Nicolai, the chief IC (intelligence officer) of the German Army, had grown very annoyed that Mata Hari had provided him with no intelligence worthy of the name, instead selling the Germans mere Paris gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, and decided to terminate her employment by exposing her as a German spy to the French.

In December 1916, the French Second Bureau of the French War Ministry let Mata Hari obtain the names of six Belgian agents. Five were suspected of submitting fake material and working for the Germans, while the sixth was suspected of being a double agent for Germany and France. Two weeks after Mata Hari had left Paris for a trip to Madrid, the double agent was executed by the Germans, while the five others continued their operations. This development served as proof to the Second Bureau that the names of the six spies had been communicated by Mata Hari to the Germans.

On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her room at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées in Paris. She was put on trial on 24 July, accused of spying for Germany, and consequently causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers. Although the French and British intelligence suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Supposedly secret ink was found in her room, which was incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup.

Margaretha’s principal interrogator was Captain Pierre Bouchardon, the man who was to prosecute her at her trial, who grilled her relentlessly. Bouchardon was able to establish that much of the Mata Hari persona was invented, and far from being a Javanese princess, Margaretha was actually Dutch, which he was to use as evidence of her dubious and dishonest character at her trial. Margaretha admitted to Bouchardon that she had accepted 20,000 francs from a German diplomat in the Netherlands to spy on France, but insisted she only passed on to the Germans trivial information as her loyalty was entirely to her adopted nation, France. In the meantime, Ladoux had been preparing a case against his former agent by casting all of her activities in the worst possible light, going so far as to engage in evidence tampering.

In 1917, France had been badly shaken by the Great Mutinies of the French Army in the spring of 1917 following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive together with a huge strike wave, and at the time, many believed that France might simply collapse as a result of war exhaustion. In July 1917, a new government under Georges Clemenceau, aka “le tigre”, had come into power, utterly committed to winning the war. In this context, having one German spy for whom everything that went wrong with the war so far could be blamed was most convenient for the French government, making Mata Hari the perfect scapegoat, which explains why the case against her received maximum publicity in the French press, and led to her importance in the war being greatly exaggerated. The Canadian historian Wesley Wark stated in a 2014 interview that Mata Hari was never an important spy and just made a scapegoat for French military failures which she had nothing to do with, stating: “They needed a scapegoat and she was a notable target for scapegoating”. Likewise, the British historian Julie Wheelwright stated: “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain”. Wheelwright went on to describe Margaretha as “…an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.”

Margaretha wrote several letters to the Dutch Ambassador in Paris, claiming 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.” The most terrible and heart-breaking moment for Mata Hari during the trial occurred when her lover Maslov – by now a deeply embittered man as a result of losing his eyes in combat – declined to testify for her, telling her he couldn’t care less if she were convicted or not. It was reported that Margaretha fainted when she learned that Maslov had abandoned her.

Her defence attorney, veteran international lawyer Édouard Clunet, faced impossible odds; he was denied permission either to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses or to examine his own witnesses directly. Bouchardon used the very fact that Margaretha was a woman as evidence of her guilt, saying: “Without scruples, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Mata Hari herself admitted under interrogation to taking money to work as a German spy. It is contended by some historians that Mata Hari may have merely accepted money from the Germans without actually carrying out any spy duties. At her trial, Margaretha vehemently insisted that her sympathies were with the Allies and declared her passionate love of France, her adopted homeland. In October 2001, documents released from the archives of MI5 (British counter-intelligence) were used by a Dutch group, the Mata Hari Foundation to ask the French government to exonerate Zelle as they argued that the MI5 files proved she was not guilty of the charges she was convicted of. A spokesman from the Mata Hari Foundation argued that at most Zelle was a low-level spy who provided no secrets to either side, stating: “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.”

Mata Hari when she was arrested. In the early hours of Oct. 15, 1917, Mata Hari — one of the most famous spies of the 20th century — was shaken awake in her prison cell. Her time had come.

In the early-morning hours of October 15, Mata Hari was awakened and taken by car from her Paris prison cell to an army barracks on the city’s outskirts where she was to meet her fate.

Henry Wales was a British reporter who covered the execution. Mata Hari was awakened in the early morning of October 15. She had made a direct appeal to the French president for clemency and was expectantly awaiting his reply:

“The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.

The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.

‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.

She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.

Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.

Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:

‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.

The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up. Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A sub-officer stood behind them, sword drawn. The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.

The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.

She did not move a muscle.

The under-officer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.

It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.

Mata Hari was surely dead.”

‘I am ready’: Mata Hari faced a firing squad for spying — and refused a blindfold. The execution of Mata Hari by a firing squad, October 15, 1917.

Mata Hari’s body was not claimed by any family members and was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. In 2000, archivists discovered that it had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, according to curator Roger Saban, when the museum had been relocated. It remains missing. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body, but none of the remains could later be accounted for.

Mata Hari’s sealed trial and related other documents are scheduled to be declassified by the French Army in 2017, one hundred years after her execution.

 


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