Mata Hari was the stage name for Dutch woman Margaretha Zelle (1876 -1917) who became a very well known exotic dancer in Europe during the decade leading up to the First World War.
She had married a Dutch Army officer when she was only 18 and a son and daughter were born soon after. The young boy died while the couple were stationed in Java, and the marriage ended in divorce around 1903, with the husband granted custody of the daughter.
Margaretha then embarked on a spectacular change in her career, becoming an “exotic dancer” using the name “Mata Hari”, a Malay phrase meaning “eye of the day”. Her dancing was highly provocative for the time and she rapidly became famous, particularly in France where she pioneered and developed her unique dance style.
She greatly extended this career path by becoming a female courtesan, a companion of people in high places, where she regularly mixed with wealthy businessmen and high-ranking military officers. It was rumoured that she had several relationships amongst European aristocracy who paid well for her company.
Soon after the outbreak of World War One French secret police asked her to use her skills as a courtesan to develop relationships with German naval and army attaches in Madrid, in order to extract intelligence information from them. However late in 1916 they became convinced that Mata Hari had become a “double agent” and was in fact operating for the Germans against France.
She was arrested in France, put on trial for espionage – and found guilty. She protested her innocence throughout, remarking at one stage:
“A harlot? Yes, but a traitor never!”
She was executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917 when she was 41 years of age. She reportedly refused a blindfold and also asked if her hands could remain untied.
Image: A photograph of Mata Hari taken in 1906, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.