I was first introduced to the name Mata Hari in Pond Life, a mini-series that focussed on Amy and Rory Pond from Doctor Who. In the first episode the Doctor (Matt Smith) leaves a message on their answering machine and briefly comments on meeting Mata Hari – ‘What an interesting woman’. It’s taken me four years to research her. First thing I learned? That’s not her name. This should have been obvious, she was an exotic dancer and performer. Margaretha Zelle moved to Paris in 1903 and after two years ‘Mata Hari’ became the one to watch. She was sexy, even by today’s standards. According to reports Hari would often remove all her clothes, and if not would only wear a jewelled bra. There’s even photographic evidence of this, which is where my research took a sadder turn.
Guess who kept these photos? Her ex-husband. Zelle married Captain MacLeod in 1895 and, aptly described on Wikipedia – ‘The marriage was an overall disappointment’. Her husband drank, hit her, and was anything but decent. They divorced in 1906 and Zelle was given custody of their daughter, until MacLeod refused to return her after a visit. Zelle gave up as she didn’t have the means to fight. These photographs of Hari were later found by MacLeod and used as evidence, proving that she would have been an unfit mother. At the end of September this last year letters dated from 1904 to 1905 were found. According to one of her letters, she had to sell her bike in order to have enough money. The Tresoar Centre, who now care for the letters, say that ‘she is well aware that her life could end up moving in the wrong direction but she does her best to do the right thing and to be reunited with her daughter’.
Of course this was all before she became ‘Mata Hari’, or the feme fatale figure that we’re familiar with. Her spy career has been blown way out of proportion. Zelle was romantically involved with a pilot, serving with the French, during WW1. This man, Captain Maslov, was shot down in the spring of 1916. Zelle wanted to visit him, however as she was Dutch (and the Dutch were neutral at the time) the Deuxième Bureau, the French military agency, told her she could only visit Maslov if she spied on Germany for them. And so she did. By the looks of things she only sent gossip back from Germany, nothing of note, and – after reading up on her various missions – it doesn’t sound like they took her seriously. Her main contact in the Deuxième Bureau was Captain Ladoux, who was one of her principle accusers at her trial.
The trial was a shambles. At the beginning of 1917, when Zelle was tried, the French military was under a great deal of turmoil. There was a strike, a new leader was placed in charge mid-way through the year – everything that could go wrong went wrong. And they used Zelle as a scapegoat, thinking catching one German spy with connections to the Dutch would boost morale and improve things. She wrote letters to the Dutch ambassador in Paris, Maslov refused to see her, and her lawyer didn’t have prep time with her. She didn’t have chance.
She was executed by firing squad and blew a kiss to the gunmen.
So, I want to introduce you to Margaretha Zelle. A wrongly convicted woman, an exotic dancer, a mother, a young woman who walked around Paris because she had to sell her bike. I wouldn’t say I find her inspirational – though you may – but for me she serves as a reminder. History covers a variety of sins, and it is likely that we will be remembered as far more dazzling figures than we’d hope.
Written for Sheroes of History by Daisy Edwards
Find out more…
This website has some incredible photos of Margaretha
A new biography, A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy was recently published
Watch this short documentary about her online: