8.8 Mata Hari: A World War I Spy

Mata Hari: A World War I Spy

Mata Hari fit society’s profile of a female spy so perfectly: beautiful, seductive, and duplicitous. That’s why the Germans, and the British, and the French all thought she must actually be a spy. Even when they couldn’t find any evidence of it. Here is the story of a woman who had many faults, but almost certainly not the one she was executed for.


Despite her exotic-sounding name, the woman who would one day be known as Mata Hari was 100% Dutch. She was born in 1876 and named Margaretha Zelle.

And the first of many problems to deal with in her story is the name. Throughout her life, she changed names like some women do hair colors. Many biographers try to keep up with the changes so that her name changes with every chapter in the book. Me, I’m just going to throw my hands up in despair and call her Margaretha until she becomes Mata Hari. Then I’ll call her Mata Hari, but at least it’s only one change for you to keep up with.

The second problem to deal with is that Margaretha’s life was a staged performance from beginning to end, and she frequently changed the script. She was a liar, and many of her statements about herself are both demonstrably untrue and also contradictory. It makes it a rough go for a historian, trying to sort out the truth from the lies, but we’ll give it a go.

Margaretha’s father had a thriving haberdashery business. Her mother was a young lady with social status, so that’s a boost in life, right? Margaretha was taught manners, music, handwriting, and French. In short, all the skills necessary to marry well, host parties, and be decorative, while servants did all the heavy work (Shipman, 6).

Unfortunately, her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced, and her mother died with no cause given, other than humiliation and poverty (Shipman, 8), which smacks of suicide to me, though I have no proof of that. 

Margaretha was packed off to live with relatives, presumably because her father’s mistress didn’t want her. The relatives packed her off to boarding school, where she’d learn to be a kindergarten teacher. (Shipman 9-10), so the relatives don’t really seem to have wanted her either.

The school soon rejected her too. There are no verified records on why but the rumor is that she (age 16) had an affair with the headmaster (age 51). In modern times that’s called abuse of a minor, and he would have been the one at fault. But those were different days, so she was the one at fault and off she went (Shipman, 11).

At any rate she was never going to be a kindergarten teacher. The honest truth was that a woman with social pretensions wasn’t supposed to have a job. She was supposed to have a man, preferably a husband, but at least a father with money enough so that she didn’t need a job.

Accordingly Margaretha set about finding herself a man. They didn’t have online dating then but they did have newspapers, and one of them carried this ad: “Officer on home leave from Dutch East Indies would like to meet a girl of pleasant character—object matrimony” (Shipman, 397).

Margaretha answered the ad and included a picture. Her object was also matrimony. She wanted a man to support her as soon as possible. Rudolf McLeod wanted a Dutch wife to take back to the Indies. It was obviously a match made in heaven, right? She was already signing letters as ‘your future little wife’ before they’d even met. They were officially engaged six days after meeting. A few months later they were married and that includes a delay because Rudolf McLeod was home on medical leave. He was ill, with precisely what we are not absolutely sure, but syphilis is a good guess (Shipman 49).

Margaretha and Rudolf MacLeod (Source)

They went on a beautiful honeymoon, and then came home where the marriage proceeded to break down. They lived with Rudolf’s sister, which did not help, but the problems were much deeper than that. Rudolf was a man who had lived hard: drinking, gambling and womanizing, with entirely predictable results on his health, his finances, and his expectations. He was not an ideal husband. But even so, we cannot place all the blame on him. Margaretha herself said “I had not married to go without luxury,” which is to say, financial problems and she also that “seeing a handsome young man made my heart start to beat quicker ” (Shipman, 52), which is to say, jealousy and fidelity problems. Rudolf, by the way, was quite a bit older.

Nevertheless, their son was born in January 1879, and in May, they left for the Dutch East Indies. The medical leave was over (Shipman, 56).

In some ways, this was an improvement. In Java, they could afford servants and the luxury Margaretha expected a man to provide her. That was, after all, the reason she had married him. Plus, no more sister-in- law (Shipman, 60).

But in other ways it was worse. Java was a society with very strong racial divisions. As someone 100% Dutch, Margaretha should have been on the top of the pile, but her hair was dark and her complexion was the type that northern Europeans also called dark, though in our more globalized world, we wouldn’t call it dark at all. The point was many in Java assumed she was mixed race. It was a social embarrassment for both Margaretha and Rudolf. Sad that that is how the world worked, but that is in fact how the world worked.

Margaretha, probably about 1895 (Source)

Nevertheless, their daughter was born in 1898 (Shipman, 60). The marriage had not improved. They wrote to each other during brief absences and Rudolf frequently wrote things like: “A puerile letter such as that [you sent me) yesterday does me no good at all and if you don’t know how to write better you might as well abstain from writing” (Shipman, 83).

He also accused her of neglecting the children. Whether she did or not is hard to prove, but certainly Java had terrible child mortality rates. Their oldest son did die. Rudolf blamed Margaretha for neglect. She blamed him for giving their son congenital syphilis. The rumor mill blamed poisoning by the native nurse, but that accusation was not prosecuted, as it certainly would have been if there had been even a single shred of proof. It might easily have been something as simple as food poisoning. The fact is it was simply a tragedy all the way around for everyone.

Margaretha now reported physical abuse and wrote to her father, who advised her to get a divorce. There is, of course, no excuse for physical abuse, and I don’t doubt for a moment that abuse did occur, but remember that Margaretha was a life-long liar, so she may have exaggerated the situation. It’s particularly obvious in one letter where she seems far more upset when he said she bored him than that he threatened her with a loaded revolver (Shipman, 125-126). Also bear in mind that she herself wrote that she provoked him on purpose (Shipman, 124).

All in all, there was plenty of blame to go around. By 1902, Rudolf had retired, they were back in Amsterdam and the divorce papers were filed. After an inevitable legal wrangle, Rudolf got custody of their daughter. Margaretha would never see her again.

And she was back right where she had started: poor and on her own.

Actually below where she had started for she now had a divorce (scandalous) and syphilis (unless she was lying about that, always so hard to tell).

She decided to go to Paris where a circus hired her as a horsewoman, but she was told she’d do better as a dancer (Shipman, 145). So she created a stage persona. She was Lady Gresha MacLeod, widow of a Scottish officer who had served in the Indies. That’s four lies in one sentence if you’re counting. She had studied the sacred temple dances there. And that was the secret to success. Because that meant this was religion, this was art, with a capital A. It was certainly, certainly not just stripping. Oh no, and you are revealing your own prudish small-mindedness to suggest that it was just stripping. She didn’t dance at any trashy clubs. She danced at museums for the intelligentsia and classy society parties. People came in droves to see Art.

Mata Hari in 1910 in a stage outfit (Source)

As business grew, she decided that Lady Gresha MacLeod wasn’t exotic enough, so she became Mata Hari, which in Malay meant sunrise or eye of the dawn (Shipman, 148)

With every interview, the story grew: She was the daughter of a temple dancer in India, she had been raised in a temple until a Scottish lord rescued her before he tragically died. She learned to dance in India. She learned to dance in Java. She was half-Indian. She was full-blooded Indian. It wasn’t even a consistent stage persona. Her birthplace and race changed according to her mood (Shipman, 156).

Mata Hari was a such a sensation among those with pretensions as art lovers that any criticism came across as mean-spirited and catty. Like when the French novelist Colette said, “she did not actually dance, but with graceful movements shed her clothes” (Shipman, 155).

And you might think it was just cattiness, except that Mata Hari herself had the same cynical view: “I never could dance well,” she wrote to a friend. “People came to see me because I was the first who dared to show myself naked to the public” (Shipman, 145).

Whatever the reason, the public was certainly coming and the critics were going into raptures about how deeply moving it all was. The money flowed in too. But even so, she was living beyond her means, and soon everyone who was anyone in Paris had seen her perform at least once, so it was time to take this show on the road and tour Europe.

Another stage outfit (Source)

This brought several benefits: new audiences, and also more rich men. At this point in time, any woman on the stage was considered to have questionable morals, but there was no question about Mata Hari’s. She left a trail of lovers wherever she went, many of them prepared to donate large sums of money in return for a private performance of Art (Shipman, 163-4).

Alongside all the broken-hearted wives in her wake, Mata Hari also left many a young woman who thought they could shed their clothes as gracefully as anyone. Mata Hari responded to these upstart imitators with a breathtaking lack of both humility and honesty. “Born in Java, in the midst of tropical vegetation, I have been taught from my earliest childhood the deep meaning of these dances which constitute a cult, a religion. Only those born and bred there become impregnated with their religious significance, and can impart to them that solemn note to which they can lay claim” (Shipman, 165).

There is no telling how long Mata Hari might have been able to sustain a life that depended on being beautiful and pretending to be young. Honestly, she lasted a surprisingly long time in a field not known for long careers. She was still going strong in 1914 and was staying in Berlin with a 6-month contract and her lover, a chief of police, when World War I changed everything.

Mata Hari was legally a French resident and France was the enemy, so Germany froze her bank accounts and confiscated her luggage when she tried to leave. They also claimed that as a Dutch citizen she needed a Dutch passport, so she had to wait for that. When it came, she crossed out the age 38 on it and replaced it with age 30. By this point she had no money for a new train ticket, so she went for the old standby: find a man to pay.

She charmed, but did not seduce, a Dutch businessman into doing exactly that. We know she did not seduce him because on arrival in Amsterdam, she met his wife, who felt bold enough to ask the infamous courtesan why she hadn’t seduced the man. And in another truly breathtaking comment, Mata Hari said, “Because I had only one chemise left, as everything else had been taken away from me—and really, I didn’t feel clean enough” (Shipman, 185), so I guess she had moments of honesty.

In Amsterdam, she found a man who would furnish a house for her, and she was there in the autumn of 1915 when a pivotal event occurred, though she failed to realize the significance.

She was visited by Karl Kroemer, the German consul. He asked her to become a German agent, complete with a code name, invisible ink, and all the works. Mata Hari had no very kind feelings toward the Germans. They had frozen her accounts and stolen her valuable wardrobe. They owed her. So she took the 20,000 francs Kroemer offered as her just recompense, showed him the door, and then trashed the invisible ink. As far as she was concerned, the matter was closed (Shipman, 187). Any Germans waiting for intelligence from her would wait for a long time.

She got bored in Amsterdam and went back to Paris. En route, the boat stopped in British territory, and they grilled her on her identity and searched her possessions. They found nothing incriminating but they didn’t like her nonetheless: she was a woman alone, multilingual, bold, and quite ready to admit to being both unmarried and sexually active. As biographer Pat Shipman wrote, “This was wartime and women were expected to be dutiful, brave, home-loving, and patriotic. Nothing about Mata Hari ever convinced anyone she had those traits” (Shipman, 191). This too was a fact that would come back to haunt her.

But for the moment, the British had nothing to go on but their own disapproval, so Mata Hari was allowed to carry on to Paris, where she was kept under constant surveillance by French intelligence.

From this point on we have extremely good evidence about everything she did because her every move was recorded and filed away and is now available online in a now unclassified dossier that is all of 1,275 pages long. And what she did was a lot of shopping and entertaining an incredible number of men. The solid, respectable men tailing her were appalled, but they found no evidence of any spying activity (Shipman, 199; Zelle, 1118-1268).

One of the surveillance reports on Mata Hari. On November 4, 1916, she went shopping at 9:30 at the Galeries Lafayette. Then she took a taxi to the Dutch Consulat. She came out with a man, and the two walked to the Bois de Boulogne, while a taxi followed them. The two parted, the taxi driver caused some difficulty, and she called a security guard. She then continued on foot for a while, and then took a new taxi back to her hotel.

Source: ZELLE, Margaretha Gertrude dossier, page 1144

According to Mata Hari herself, she visited the office of Captain Georges Ladoux because she wanted to visit a health spa which was in the war zone, so a pass was needed. He tried to recruit her as a French spy (Shipman, 212).

According to Ladoux, she offered to be a French spy, while he already suspected her of being a German one.

According to Mata Hari, Ladoux assigned her to go to Belgium and seduce a banker there with German contacts, who had information she could pass on. If she could get the info he wanted, Ladoux would give her one million francs (Shipman, 230-231).

According to Ladoux, he only said the information would be worth one million francs, not that he’d pay it, and it was all intended as a trap to catch this wicked woman in her traitorous activities.

Either way, off she went to Belgium. Once again, the boat stopped in British territory. Once again the Brits interrogated her. This time they mistook her for a genuine German agent and once they’d sorted that mistaken identity, they said all right, you can go, but not to Belgium and they packed her on a boat to Spain.

Mata Hari was, understandably, annoyed. She wanted that one million francs. She always wanted money, but this time she had a lover she actually wanted to marry (a Russian soldier who was still in his early twenties, if you like), and she needed money to do it because he certainly didn’t have any.

So, she looked around her for a man to provide and as usual, she found one. Spain had plenty of German officials. So she seduced one who was happy to tell her about German submarines off Morocco and the name of the head of German intelligence in Barcelona (Shipman, 254). She wrote this up in ordinary ink, uncoded, and mailed it to Ladoux through the ordinary post office. The following day she met a man named Denvignes, who worked for the French embassy, which obviously meant he was someone to trust, right? With an utterly disarming naiveté, Mata Hari told him all about it, him being with the French embassy and all.

Since Ladoux did not answer her letter, she gave all subsequent information directly to Denvignes: that the Germans had broken the French code for their radio messages, that their agents carried invisible ink in little white balls under their fingernails (Shipman 258-259), etc.

Most of this information was what the French intel called intoxication: false or stale information planted to see how much would make it back to headquarters, which in this case, was all of it. Mata Hari was too inexperienced an agent to realize that she was not deceiving her German lover: he was the one deceiving her.

Since she had obviously delivered as a spy, Mata Hari tripped along to Paris to collect her one million francs, but Ladoux avoided her. He was simply never in the office when she tried to drop by. And on February 13th, 1917, he had her arrested.

The man who managed the investigation was Pierre Bouchardon, nicknamed the Grand Inquisitor.

He later wrote, “From the first interview [with Mata Hari], I had the intuition that I was in the presence of a person in the pay of our enemies. From that time, I had but one thought: to unmask her” (Shipman, 281).

And having made up his mind on the basis of a hunch before he’d even begun the investigation, Bouchardon cast around for the evidence to back up what he already believed.

Mata Hari found all this ridiculous. Everything she had done, she had done on Ladoux’s orders, it would all be sorted out soon, and she didn’t need a lawyer.

That last part was a very big mistake. When she finally realized the gravity of her situation, she asked for her own personal lawyer, who did try for her, but he was certainly no expert in espionage cases. That wasn’t his expertise.  

Meanwhile Bouchard on kept her in terrible conditions, believing that such a circumstance softened up the prisoners. Saint-Lazare was the worst prison Paris had to offer: it had dirt, dark, and damp, fleas and rats, bad food and bad hygiene (Shipman, 285). Mata Hari, accustomed to the very best that rich men could provide her, began to lose her mind.

Because I cannot eat this soup of dogs, I must go to bed without having eaten anything. Why, my liutenant, do they make me suffer the greatest misery? You can interrogate me, but I am still a woman. Respectifully, Mata Hari, Madame Zelle McLeod.

Source: ZELLE, Margaretha Gertrude dossier, page 55, translation my own

The days stretched into weeks and then months. Her letters grew increasingly wild and desperate. To a modern reader, she is clearly suffering bad anxiety on the level that would be considered a serious mental health issue, but back then itwas just a woman making a fuss over nothing. And she continued to deny any wrongdoing.

Which was part of the problem, really. She was so free with the names of her lovers, past and present, so utterly unabashed about sexuality, that the men interrogating her thought she must be capable of all kinds of iniquity.

Bouchardon was certainly industrious in his attempt to find the evidence he wanted. He sent inquiries to banks all over Europe, looking for accounts in Mata Hari’s name with suspiciously large amounts of money. He found none (Shipman, 292).

He scrutinized all those police reports from the men who had tailed her. They were eye popping in multiple ways, but none of it was criminal, none of it was traitorous.

He seized her possessions and analyzed every soap, cream, makeup, and perfume bottle in her possession to find one that was really invisible ink. The chemist found nothing out of the ordinary but admitted some could be used that way. The same is true of milk and lemon juice (Shipman, 295).

Her possessions contained letters or cards from 53 (yes, 53) separate men, and Bouchardon questioned all of them. To a man, they all agreed that Mata Hari was charming, lovely, and had never asked them for any military information (Shipman, 296).

All this was in her favor, but she expected Ladoux to vouch for her, and he did not. She expected Denvignes to vouch for her and he did not.

These men betrayed her because they thought a woman like her must be a spy. She fit their profile of what a female spy would be like, and they disapproved.

Also, France needed a scapegoat. The war was going very badly. Hundreds of thousands of their young men were dead. The countryside was in ruins. The suffering was intense. Someone must be to blame.

In April, Ladoux produced German telegrams his office had intercepted. That is to say, he produced copies of the telegrams. These telegrams were from a German officer in Spain to Berlin headquarters. They referred to Agent H21 and explained that said agent had pretended to accept a French espionage assignment, attempted it, was sent back to Spain, and was paid for the work on a couple of occasions, complete reports to follow. Mata Hari’s name was never mentioned, but Anna Lintjens was mentioned, and that just so happened to be the name of Mata Hari’s maid (Shipman, 311).

Bouchardon must have sat back in his chair and smiled. Here was the proof he needed.

It’s in the subsequent years that anyone bothered to ask questions. Like, where are the original coded telegrams? And if Ladoux had these in December (the date the first telegram was sent) why did he wait until February to arrest Mata Hari and until April to mention the telegrams to anyone? Why did he pay for extremely expensive surveillance if he already had proof? Why were they coded in an old German code that the French had broken and the Germans knew that the French had broken?

The telegrams are also full of other inconsistencies, such as dates that are close, but not quite right and claims that there were maybe fourteen telegrams, maybe nine. The list of problems adds up, all of it exhaustively explored in a biography by Russell Warren Howe.

There are many theories, all ultimately unprovable, but here are some:

  • Ladoux fabricated the telegrams because he needed a scapegoat to explain to the public why the war was going so badly.
  • Someone (probably Ladoux) fabricated the telegrams because the fabricator was a German agent himself and needed to divert attention away.
  • The telegrams were, in fact, sent by a German agent, not because they had hired Mata Hari as a German spy, but because the easiest way to eliminate a French spy was to get France itself to do the eliminating. That is to say, it was misinformation.
  • The telegrams were sent by a German agent, and they wanted Mata Hari executed not because they felt threatened by her, but because she had taken their 20,000 francs and delivered nothing. Again, misinformation.

The least likely scenario is that Mata Hari, having proved herself to be so utterly incompetent as a French spy, was somehow so clever as a German spy that an exhaustive investigation had been unable to uncover any other proof.

Bouchardon didn’t even know about the 20,000 German francs until May 21st when Mata Hari, ill and confused, broke down and told him about it. She had wisely kept quiet about that earlier, but prison had broken her. She thought it proved her innocence: she had not spied for Germany, even when it was clearly in her financial interest to do so (Shipman, 321).

But for Bouchardon it was the final nail in her coffin. “We must make clear,” he wrote, “that from our point of view maintaining contact with the enemy is considered legally to be a crime equivalent to actually furnishing information to the enemy” (Shipman, 326). Which is quite a bizarre statement. She had not been on French soil when Kroemer visited her. And surely, France could have no objection to bilking Germany out of whatever money anyone could bilk it out of. A later biographer wrote “If she had held up the Deutschbank’s Amsterdam office at gunpoint, the French would undoubtedly have applauded” (Howe, 208). But she took it by deceiving Kroemer into thinking she would work for him, and that was, apparently, a crime against France.

On July 24th, Mata Hari came to trial. It was hardly a jury of her peers. She faced seven military men, and they found her guilty, even on charges that were demonstrably false from Ladoux’s own surveillance reports (Shipman, 354).

On October 15th, 1917, Mata Hari was led before a firing squad and shot. No one stepped forward to claim her body (Shipman, 367).

Mata Hari’s mugshot before her execution (Source)

Back in the Netherlands, Rudolf McLeod heard the news and is reported to have said, “Whatever she’s done in life, she did not deserve that” (Shipman, 372).

Four days later Ladoux was arrested as a German spy (Shipman, 369).

It was later said that her execution was a great stroke of justice, for her incredible espionage had cost the lives of 50,000 French soldiers. And that statement was as staged as anything Mata Hari ever said. Because no one has ever tied that number to any specific piece of information that she supposedly passed to Germany, which led to a specific battle at which 50,000 Frenchmen died. It was a number someone made up out of thin air, to congratulate the French establishment for a job well done, at a time when they were clearly not doing a good job at all (Shipman, 348).

Since her death, Mata Hari has entered the public imagination as the epitome of the femme fatale—gorgeous and deadly and utterly deceptive. Feminists have cheered her as a self-made woman who lived as he chose, untrammeled by societal norms that oppressed women as a matter of routine. But others have growled that Mata Hari is hardly a feminist success story. The patriarchy ground her into the dust with a thoroughness that they rarely achieve. Even at the height of her career, Mata Hari can be seen as more victim than conqueror. Her so-called success was always based on pleasing men. And in the end, men abandoned her, either because their wives insisted on it or they ran out of money, both of which happened on a regular basis. And even if they didn’t exactly abandon her, they weren’t offering an equal and mutually respectful relationship. None of those 53 men who found her so lovely and charming thought it worth their while to even so much as claim her body. Not even the Russian soldier she had hoped to marry.

So which is she? A powerhouse? Or the ultimate victim? I’m wondering why couldn’t it be both. She was a powerhouse of a woman who thrived for a very long time in the world she was raised in. It’s just a real shame that that was a world which taught girls that the only way to succeed in life was to charm a man into providing for her. And that’s as tragic as anything else that happened to Mata Hari.

Selected Sources

Howe, Russell Warren. Mata Hari: The True Story. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.

Shipman, Pat. Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. New York, Harper Perennial, 2008.

“ZELLE Margueritte Gertrude, 07-08-1876.” Ministère des armées. Available online at https://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr. Accessed on September 15, 2022.

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