Crime History: The Execution Of Mata Hari, Exotic Dancer And Accused Double Agent

On October 15, 1917, Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod, the infamous Dutch exotic dancer and spy better known by her stage name Mata Hari, was executed by firing squad in France after being charged with espionage for Germany during World War I.

The records of Mata Hari’s investigation and secret trial were ordered sealed for 100 years, and mystery still surrounds her past. Was the raven-haired beauty really a double agent for the Germans? Or merely a courtesan whose liaisons with powerful men made her a target?

Although details of her past are sketchy, it is believed that she was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876. At age 18, she answered a newspaper ad placed by a Dutch Army officer 21 years her senior who was seeking a wife. Her alluring photo secured her the position, and she married Rudolf Macleod, moved to Java, Indonesia, and gave birth to a son and a daughter.

The marriage was an unhappy one, and after a rocky nine years marred by her husband’s heavy drinking and the death of their son under mysterious circumstances, they divorced. Mata’s husband took custody of their daughter — and she returned to Holland.

Mata Hari performing in 1905 [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Mata Hari performing in 1905 [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

In the early 1900s, she made her way to Paris where she reinvented herself as “Mata Hari” and billed herself as a Hindu dancer thoroughly trained in the erotic dances of the East. Her exotic look and charm made her a hit, and soon she was performing in cities across Europe, and attracting wealthy, powerful men who were happy to remunerate her for the pleasure of her company.

When World War I broke out, Mata was hired by captain Georges Ladoux and agreed to share intelligence gleaned from her German military conquests with the French government.

But the French suspected her of being a double agent, and arrested her in Paris on February 13, 1917. During lengthy interrogations by a military prosecutor, Mata admitted that a German diplomat had once paid her 20,000 francs to gather intelligence — but she swore that she never actually completed the assignment. “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!” she told her interrogators. “I have always lived for love and pleasure.”

Mata Hari [Wikimedia Commons]

Mata Hari [Wikimedia Commons]

Despite this, Mata was sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917. Unconventional until the end, she asked to forgo the customary blindfold and defiantly stared down her executioners, blowing a kiss to the soldiers.

The German government officially cleared her name of any wrongdoing in 1930.

In 1931, she was portrayed on film by the legendary Greta Garbo.

A dossier of French files that reportedly indicate her innocence are scheduled to be released to the public in 2017.

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Main image: Mata Hari [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]