Tag Archives: espionage

Death of an Amazon: The Execution of Mata Hari~1917

On this day in 1917 a beautiful dancer was executed as a spy. Her stage name was Mata Hari. She had been born in Holland and had a difficult marriage to a Dutch army officer which ended in divorce. She earned a reputation in pre-war Paris as an exotic dancer. Men of various nationalities flocked to give her attention. Eventually she was arrested by French authorities and shot as a German spy. The execution took place on the outskirts of Paris just as the sun came up. She was approximately 41 years old. Today there is considerable doubt about her guilt.


Mata Hari

A number of books, over 30, have been written about her and several films made. The recent books at least try for some historical accuracy; the films are sensationalist fiction. It seems to me that some men are shocked–or at least claim to be shocked– by the conduct of women like Mata Hari because they view women as too tender, too gentle, too soft to accomplish such daring feats as being a spy or double agent or even triple agent. And when the woman is quite attractive, such men are readily inclined to sexualize the activities of these women. Somehow this seems to such men to make the women’s conduct “understandable.” For some reason, it seems to me, from early in human history, some males are afraid of Amazons, women who carry a sword or speak their minds or do activities deemed “beyond their proper sphere.” Until all men understand that any woman may be motivated by patriotism or anger or any political reason, I guess we shall endure fantasy and fable about women such as Mata Hari.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in the very fictional 1931 film


The best book about the case of Mata Hari is The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage by the English scholar Julie Wheelwright in 1992. Here is what Kirkus Review said of the book: “While `”Mata Hari” remains synonymous with the femme fatale trading her body for secrets, this readable biography of the original–the Dutch-born exotic dancer executed by the French in 1917 for espionage–argues that she was framed and challenges the whole notion of women agents as sex workers. Margaretha Zelle MacLeod . . . divorced from an abusive Army captain . . . reinvented herself in Paris in 1904. As Hindu temple-dancer “Mata Hari,”she was a sensation, performing almost nude . . . . With her exotic Orientalist persona, her free spending, her penchant for older men in uniform (and her reliance on their monetary gifts), Mata Hari fit the model of celebrated fin-de-siŠcle courtesan–but after the outbreak of WW I, these same attributes made her suspect. Despite months of surveillance, though, French investigators turned up no evidence that Mata Hari had betrayed French interests to Germany. The investigators did malign her for lying about her past, however, and . . . on racial grounds. Meanwhile, according to British author Wheelwright, apparently Mata Hari’s only foray into espionage was on behalf of France, after her future interrogator insincerely recruited her. Wheelwright contends that the wartime culture saw all women (unless clearly passive, chaste, and self- sacrificing) as treacherous; the “international woman” became a symbol of national betrayal. Indeed, court records (sealed for decades) indicate a trumped-up case–a previously reported conclusion that remains overshadowed by legend.”


Mata Hari, dressed in a stage costume, 1910

What follows is an account of her execution as witnessed by a British journalist named Henry Wales. His account was originally published in newspapers through the International News Service on Oct. 19, 1917.Judge for yourself, gentle reader, what kind of person Mata Hari indeed was.


“The first intimation she received that her plea [to the French government for clemency] 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 subofficer 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 underofficer 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.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in the 1931 film

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.”