R: Margaretha Zelle – from schoolgirl to death by firing squad

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, born on 7 August 1876, was the eldest of the four children of Dutch couple Adam and Antje Zelle. She studied to be a kindergarten teacher. Her father owned a hat shop, but as a shrewd investor he was able to send his children to exclusive schools. But eventually he went bankrupt and he and his wife divorced. His former wife died in 1891 and he remarried Susanna Catharine ten Hoove. Margaretha went to live with her Godfather and later with an uncle in The Hague.

At 16 she was expelled from school for having an affair with the married headmaster.

Aged 18, Margaretha answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, who was living in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and was looking for a wife. They were engaged six days after meeting and married in July 1895 in Amsterdam. He was 20 years older than she. Rudolph was the son of Captain John Brienen MacLeod (a descendant of the Gesto branch of the MacLeods of Skye, and Dina Louisa, Baroness Sweerts de Landas.

The newly married Macleods moved to Malang on the east side of the island of Java in 1897. They had two children, Norman-John MacLeod (30 January 1897 – 27 June 1899) and Louise Jeanne MacLeod (2 May 1898 – 10 August 1919).

An interesting tale so far, but the life and times of Margaretha Zelle (Macleod) were about to become sensational.

You know her as Mata Hari

History identifies Margaretha as one of the most famous of all war-time spies, Mata Harti. But was she as notorious as she was cast?

Margaretha’s husband became an alcoholic and subjected her to beatings. She left her husband and moved in with another Dutch officer. She studied Indonesian culture, including dance.

In letters to her family she told them her stage name was Mata Hari (loosely meaning “sun” or “eye of the day”).

She went back to her husband but after her children became ill (Norman died) they moved back to the Netherlands. They officially separated in 1902 and Margaretha was awarded custody of Jeanne. However, Rudolph Macleod would not pay support and after an access visit with his daughter refused to return her to her mother. Jeanne died, aged 21. Both children were thought to have died from complications arising from the disease syphilis contracted from their parents.

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris, where she performed as a circus horse rider using the name Lady MacLeod. To supplement her meagre finances, she also posed as an artist’s model and continued her dancing. One of her performances in the Musée Guimet, an Asian art museum in Paris, was followed be her elevation to the Paris social scene where her dances were in high demand. Her trademarks were transparent, revealing costumes, a jewelled bra and an extraordinary headpiece.

The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a jeweled bra and some ornaments upon her arms and head. She wore a bodystocking for her performances that was similar in color to her own skin.

She explained to her audiences that her act comprised sacred temple dances from the Indies – avoiding arrest for indecency that would otherwise have been the outcome.

Mata Hari became one of the most desirable woman in Paris and was seen in the company of aristocrats, diplomats, financiers, military officers, and wealthy businessmen who showered lavish gifts upon her.

She danced in sold-out performances in nearly all the major European capitals for many years. Though her career as a dancer started to wane, she remained a favourite on the social scene and amongst men.

During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. As a Dutch subject, Mata Hari (Margaretha) could cross national borders relatively freely, avoiding the battlefields by passing between France and the Netherlands via Spain and Britain.

Her frequent travels and fame brought her to the notice of the counter-espionage world.

During a visit to The Hague in 1915 Karl Kroemer, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam offered her 20,000 francs to spy for Germany. She accepted the money, which she reportedly regarded as repayment for her furs, jewels, and money the Germans had seized when war broke out. It is reported that she didn’t accept the job, but it was at this point that her association with counter-espionage became clouded in mystery.

She is said to have then become involved in an intense relationship with a Russian pilot serving with the French, 25-year-old Captain Vadim Maslov. In 1916 Maslov was shot down in a dogfight with German planes. Mata Hari sought permission to visit the badly wounded airman in a hospital near the battlefront. Agents from the Deuxième Bureau (France’s external military intelligence agency) told her she would only be allowed to see Maslov if she agreed to spy on Germany.

Seduce the Crown Prince

She was offered a million francs if she could seduce Crown Prince Wilhelm, eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and gather intelligence for France about Germany’s military plans. This was an attractive proposition, as she had accepted Maslov’s marriage proposal.

Mata Hari was instructed to go back to The Hague via Spain and wait for instructions. But her ship was intercepted in Britain and she was detained as security officials tried to establish whether she was Margaretha Zelle MacLeod or Clara Benedix, a German agent whom she vaguely resembled.

She was taken to London where she was interrogated at length by Sir Basil Thomson, Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard in charge of counter-espionage. In his 1922 book Queer People, Sir Basil said Mata Hari eventually admitted to working for the Deuxième Bureau.

She was sent back to Spain. There, she met a German diplomat, Maj. Arnold von Kalle, who confided that there were plans for a landing of German officers, Turks, and munitions from a submarine on the coast of Morocco.

Her contact in the Deuxième Bureau was Captain Georges Ladoux and she is said to have tried to pass on this information but received no reply.

She also established a relationship with Col. Joseph Denvignes from the French legation, who asked her to obtain more information about the Moroccan plan, but when she did, her questions aroused the suspicion of the Germans.

Mata Hari again prepared information for to pass on to Ladoux but perhaps she was being fed false details.

Meanwhile, Ladoux had ordered all radio messages between Madrid and Berlin to be intercepted and monitored from a listening post located on the Eiffel Tower. Ladoux later claimed the messages clearly identified Mata Hari as a German spy.

In January 1917, Major Kalle sent radio messages to Berlin describing the helpful activities of a German spy code-named H-21, whose details closely matched those of Mata Hari. The Deuxième Bureau intercepted the messages and, from the information they contained, identified H-21 as Mata Hari. The “H” purportedly signified that she was an agent for Germany before World War I started.

General Walter Nicolai, the chief IC (intelligence officer) of the German Army, was annoyed that Mata Hari had provided no satisfactory intelligence, 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.

On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested at the Hotel Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées.

Mata Hari at the time of her arrest

During her interrogation she admitted 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 to her adopted nation, France.

Ladoux prepared his case against Mata Hari to cast her in the worst possible light. There were accusations of evidence tampering and Ladouz himself was later accused of being a double-agent. He was cleared of all allegations.

Ladoux’s telegrams and radio messages were the only real evidence against Mata Hari. The seven men who served as jurors were all military men; one, in a memoir, repeated a rumour that Mata Hari had “caused to be killed about 50,000 of our children, not counting those who found themselves on board vessels torpedoed in the Mediterranean upon the information given by (Mata Hari) no doubt.”

Mata Hari became a celebrity scapegoat for the French Government’s failings in dealing with German aggression.

She 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 heart-breaking moment for Mata Hari came when her lover Maslov declined to testify for her, telling her he couldn’t care less if she were convicted or not. It was reported that Mata Hari fainted when she learned that Maslov had abandoned her.

Convicted of all charges

She argued that payments she received were for her sexual services and not for espionage.

The jury was unmoved. Convicted on all eight counts against her, Mata Hari was sentenced to be executed by a firing squad. Attempts to commute the sentence to a prison term were denied, as were appeals for a presidential pardon. Her execution was carried out secretly on the morning of October 15, 1917.

In October 2001, documents released from the archives of British counter-intelligence were used by a Dutch group, the Mata Hari Foundation, to ask the French government to exonerate Margaretha, arguing that the MI5 files proved she was not guilty of the charges. A spokesman for the foundation argued that at most Margaretha was a low-level spy who provided no secrets to either side: “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.”

Statue of Mata Hari at her birthplace, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. – Michel van Soest at Dutch Wikipedia

Sources: National Geographic History Magazine – Why Mata Hari Wasn’t a Cunning Spy After All; Wikipedia; spymuseum.com.

References: Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, by Pat Shipman, published by William Morrow 2007.


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