222: Margaretha MacLeod
Exotic Dancer Known Better by her Stage Name of Mata Hari
Born: 7 August 1876, Leeuwarden, Netherlands
Died: 15 October 1917, Vincennes, France
Her mother died when she was fifteen and so she and her three brothers were split apart and sent to live with other relatives. Margaretha was already coming into her sexuality, and was expelled from school where she had been sent to learn how to teach.
Just before her nineteenth birthday Margaretha answered an ad in the newspaper to be the bride of a military captain twenty-one years her senior. They remained married for nine years and had two children together, but the marriage was far from happy. Margaretha discovered her husband had given her syphilis which had no known cure at the time (other than poisoning yourself with mercury). When their children fell ill, the army doctor they summoned to help was used to helping adult men, and overdosed both children, with their son dying as a result. The scandal stained their already strained marriage, and Margaretha’s husband eventually took their daughter and left (after Margaretha successfully won custody). Margaretha moved to Paris after the dissolution of her marriage.
While in Paris, she redesigned herself as a Hindi dancer named Mata Hari. Under any other circumstance her dances would have seen her arrested for breaking indecency laws, however, Margaretha claimed each of her dances was an elaborate religious ritual to get around the law. She was seen as supremely scandalous in her day, but by today’s standards no one would even bat an eye. She wore jeweled lingerie and extravagant headpieces, but always kept her breasts covered.
As the years passed, Margaretha continued to dance, but also began work as a courtesan, living in luxury while other families went without basic necessities at the outbreak of World War I. During this time, she accepted 20,000 Francs from a German Army officer after he asked her to spy for Germany. Margaretha took the money without ever accepting the job of spying. A few months later she was interviewed alongside every other passenger on the ship she was traveling on. The interviewing officer recorded that she spoke: French, English, Italian, Dutch, and most likely German, and while he didn’t find anything outwardly suspicious about her, he did note she should be denied re-entrance to the United Kingdom.
Instead she went back to Paris, where French Intelligence agents took notice: reading her mail, keeping a log of whoever she met with, and following her everywhere she went. However, they found zero evidence she was spying for the Germans.
After falling in love with a Russian army captain over a decade younger than her Margaretha accepted a position to spy for the French in the hopes of being able to visit him. Her new fiancé had suffered from gas attacks and was in danger of going blind, but she didn’t care, love was love. After accepting the position of spy for France, she was told her reward would be one million francs, more than enough to provide for her and her fiancé should his family disown him.
Margaretha was sent to Spain, despite never receiving instructions on how to communicate the information she gleaned, nor which men she should be targeting for intelligence. After arriving in Spain, she boarded another boat after being instructed to head for the Netherlands. Instead, she was stopped by British authorities and sent to London for further interrogation. The authorities found nothing on her that would make her a spy, but they decided to hold her anyway because she vaguely resembled a known German spy. Soon after, Margaretha confessed to being a French spy and told the British the name of her handler.
Her handler decided to turn against her, telling the British he had only pretended to make her a spy when, in reality, he’d long suspected her of working for the Germans.
Margaretha was released and sent back to Spain, where she decided to try this whole spying thing for a change. Margaretha soon enchanted a German officer and gained intelligence from him on troop movements. She wrote to her handler to see what she should do with the information, he never replied.
While courting the German Officer, she also managed to steal the heart of a Frenchman. After he grew jealous of her relationship with other men, she explained to him that she was a spy. Then she handed over all the information she’d collected and asked him to give it to her handler when he returned to France.
During this time, her handler made new rules, stating that all radio messages be intercepted and decoded. He would later state that he heard messages clearly stating Margaretha was a German double agent.
When Margaretha returned to Paris, her handler first refused to see her, and then claimed he had never received any of the intelligence messages from her. During January of 1917, Margaretha began to panic. She had not heard from her fiancé in many months, was beginning to suspect something was amiss with her so-called handler and boss and was running out of money since he’d never paid her. She was arrested in February of that year.
After being interrogated by a man notorious for hating immoral women (as he obviously saw Margaretha), she was sent to the worst prison in France, where she slept on flea and rat ridden cells and was given no soap to wash with. She was also denied basic necessities, like clothes, undergarments, her possessions, medical treatment, and money for stamps and letters. Her lawyer knew almost nothing about military trials and was a former lover of hers. After three months of this treatment, she began to grow increasingly anxious, and asked to see both her fiancé and her lawyer. She had no idea her fiancé was also writing her, asking for her to visit him in hospital.
Her trial began in July, despite the only evidence against her being the obviously doctored radio messages her handler claimed to possess. The seven jurors were all military men who saw her as an immoral heathen, and she was convicted on all eight counts against her. Any attempt to have her death sentence commuted to prison time were denied, as well as any hope for a presidential pardon.
When the day of her death came, she refused to wear her blindfold or be tied to the stake, going to her death with grace and dignity. The sergeant major overseeing the squad that shot her reportedly said, “By God! This lady knows how to die!”
Find a Grave Marked
Located In My Personal Library:
Historical Heartthrobs by Kelly Murphy
Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
National Geographic History Magazine Article "Seductions, Secrets, and Spies, The Killing of Mata Hari" (November/December 2017 Edition)