The French were surveilling Mata Hari warily, and knew her whereabouts as soon as she returned to Paris on January 4, 1917.

A month passed; then the French investigators sprung the trap. On February 13, Mata Hari was arrested in Paris at Élysée Palace Hôtel, and charged with being a double agent, working against France and Germany.

Mata Hari, on the day of her arrest

It was an intense interrogation, but the records have been kept under wraps for a hundred years. What was known immediately was that Mata Hari said she had a pseudonym (H21) but would admit only to giving harmless, outdated information to her German lovers. More recently the British intelligence agency MI5 released their file on Mata Hari, whom they described as glib and unfazed when an interrogator confronted her with a long list of her lovers.

“When faced with her acquaintances with officers of all ranks and all nations, she replied that she loved all officers, and would rather have as her lover a poor officer than a rich banker,” the MI5 files note.

Despite a lack of convincing evidence, Mata Hari was put on trial in France in late July, and the military court convicted her of being a double agent for Germany and France. She was condemned to death. She was to be executed by firing squad, a method used to punish the worst acts of cowardice, espionage, desertion, and treason.

In the meantime, there were months to wait. Mata Hari was ushered to Cell #12 in Prison Saint-Lazare to wait. She was not without hope. Her attorney was Maître Clunet, and he was busily appealing her conviction through the courts and directly to President Raymond Poincaré for clemency and was awaiting his reply.

President Poincaré

As a condemned prisoner, she was treated well. She received better food, and was allowed to have visitors, letters, and flowers— but none arrived. Mata Hari wrote three letters but they were returned unopened.

And finally, her appeals were exhausted, followed by the news that President Poincaré formally refused to intervene.

In the early-morning hours of October 15, two nuns whispered to each other for a moment before the door to Cell #12 was unlocked. They approached the bed, where Mata Hari was sleeping deeply. They shook her awake and whispered that her time had come.

The timing of her execution had been kept secret- even from her- to prevent any interference. There was no violent reaction. The prisoner asked permission to write two letters and Bouchardon, the captain in charge, bowed his agreement. Mata Hari quickly scribbled the letters, and handed them to her lawyer.

As she dressed, a small group congregated to await her: Father Arbaux, the two nuns, Captain Bouchardon, Maître Clunet, and a British reporter named Henry Wales . It was Wales who captured the details of Mata Hari’s execution.

Mata Hari alights from a car, on a happier day

The condemned woman emerged from her cell for the last time in a light gray dress, buttoned up shoes, a blue coat, and a wide black hat covered her braided hair. She wore black gloves. The grim party escorted from her prison cell to an automobile, which would take her to the army barracks on the outskirts of the city.

Around 5:30 a.m., the car arrived at Caserne de Vincennes, where the execution would take place. The automobile ground to a halt, and the door opened at once. There was no delay: the group immediately walked to the place where twelve Zouave soldiers stood, awaiting the prisoner.

In an execution by firing squad, a group of soldiers face the condemned prisoner. They are handed loaded firearms and at a signal, they fire simultaneously at the target. Not every soldier is shooting a live round, but no one knows whether his weapon has a real bullet or blanks. This is done to ease the guilt a soldier might feel afterwards: he can reasonably tell himself that he didn’t fire the fatal shot.

For practical reasons, the prisoner is required to be restrained- usually bound to a tree or a pole, but sometimes on their knees. The blindfold may be seen as an act of compassion toward the prisoner but it also makes the execution easier for the soldier, who might otherwise be haunted by the memory of the despairing eyes of the prisoner whose life he is to take.

 

A Zouave soldier

 

Father Arbaux spoke to Mata Hari in a low voice. The soldiers noted her calm composure with wonder, and watched as a French officer approached Mata Hari with a long white cloth, and offered it to the condemned prisoner. “A blindfold, madame,” he urged her.

Mata Hari’s chin came up. “Must I wear that?” she asked in a clear voice. The French officer did not insist on the blindfold. More remarkably, he did not have the prisoner restrained. Instead, he signaled to the little group that the prisoner’s time had come.

One by one the prisoner’s attendants stepped away– until Mata Hari stood alone, facing the Zouave soldiers. They stood at attention, with their guns aimed at her heart. She did not plead or cry. Instead, Mata Hari blew the soldiers a kiss.

Her hands then fluttered to her sides and she stood facing them, her back straight. The officer then gave the signal and a loud crack pierced the air. The soldiers lowered their guns.

Henry Wales, watching from a short distance away, wrote that Mata Hari first sank to her knees, as if in slow motion, then she fell backwards. He watched as the French officer who had suggested the blindfold walked over to where the prisoner lay on the ground. Without ceremony, he shot her in the head. Wales wrote: “Mata Hari was surely dead.”

In the aftermath of her execution, no one claimed the condemned woman’s body. Mata Hari’s head was embalmed and given to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. It disappeared in the 1950s, and remains missing today. The rest of her body was used for medical study.

When Capt. Rudolph MacLeod, Mata Hari’s ex-husband, learned of her execution, he said, “Whatever she’s done in life, she did not deserve that.”

Mata Hari, as she would surely prefer to be remembered

 

“Death is nothing, nor life either, for that matter.

To die, to sleep, to pass into nothingness, what does it matter?

Everything is an illusion.” – Mata Hari

Gretha, now reborn as Mata Hari, soon had the whole of Europe at her feet. She was a popular exotic dancer who presented herself as someone thoroughly acquainted with the dancing of the East. And she did not confine herself to Paris. Men in Milan, Vienna, Berlin, and Madrid flocked to her shows.

 

Mata Hari presented herself to the press as an Indian woman. She had invented a suitably interesting back-story that began with “I was born in the south of India near Jaffna Patnam on the Malabar coast.” She found ways to darken her naturally fair skin to achieve a more Indian appearance.

The French novelist Colette, who also adopted an Eastern style (albeit less successfully), accused Mata Hari of being a fraud and wrote uncharitably that her skin might look amber at night, but in the daylight it was “mauve and patchy” from artificial dye.

Men were undeterred by the patchiness of Mata Hari’s skin hue. She was a sought-after courtesan who attracted many rich, powerful, and aristocratic clients. After the Great War began in 1914, her clientele inevitably included a number of military men. These were not poor soldiers, but high-ranking officers who gave her expensive jewelry and long, elegant furs.

Colette, Mata Hari critic

 

When, how, and how deeply Mata Hari’s foray into espionage goes is not known. There are theories but the facts are obscure and contradictory. The only definitive facts are that Mata Hari had German and French lovers, many of them were officers, and occasionally, she repeated information one had told her with an enemy on the other side.

Her career as a spy began in the spring of 1916, when Mata Hari was living in The Hague. Karl Kroemer, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam, sought her out. He came to her home– everyone knew where she lived– and presented her with a supply of secret ink and 20,000 francs (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $80,000). In exchange, the officer wanted to know any secrets Mata Hari picked up during her liaisons with the French officers. That was how it began.

 

 

Mata Hari seemed to have come to the attention of intelligence officers across Europe all at once. Later that year, she was traveling between France and the Netherlands, and questioned at a British port. MI5 files have survived that included a British officer’s assessment of her. “[She] Speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German. Handsome, bold type of woman. Well and fashionably dressed.” Though nothing incriminating was found in a search of her person and luggage, the officer wrote:  “Not above suspicion . . . most unsatisfactory . . . should be refused permission to return to the U.K.”

In Paris, Mata Hari had French clients who were able to facilitate a connection for her. Shortly after her arrival, she discussed spying on the Germans for the French. At last the dancer offered the French a deal. She wanted a million francs to spy on Germans in her unique capacity (about 4 million dollars in today’s currency).

The French took her up on it. Mata Hari was packed off to Madrid where she would meet Major Arnold Kalle, a well-connected German officer. It all worked according to plan. Mata Hari arrived in Madrid, Kalle was properly enchanted, and told her of a plan the Germans were sketching out to move rifles through Morocco. The information was then given to the French.

 

Place de l’Opera, Paris, 1916

But the Germans had been crafty – or Mata Hari had been sloppy. Either way, they fed her false information, and allowed it to slip to the French through other channels that Mata Hari was acting as a German spy.

Now, neither the French nor the Germans trusted Mata Hari, and viewed her as a traitor and worse. If she noticed, Mata Hari was undeterred from returning to Paris in January 1917.

Next, the finale: With her head held high

The incredible life of Mata Hari, the beautiful World War I-era dancer and spy, is going to be the subject of an upcoming series on Old Spirituals.

In her day, Mata Hari inspired early film stars. Since then, countless artists, actresses, and models have tried to recreate the mystique that was effortless for the Dutch dancer. She was known for many things, including her elaborate costumes and headdresses.

Countless intriguing figures peopled the 20th century, but Mata Hari still fascinates us over 100 years after her death. These photographs may give you some idea of why!

 

 

 

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