Real-life Villain or Scapegoat

On October 15, 1917 Mata Hari died, executed by firing squad for being a German spy. Her story of excesses, seduction and espionage has captured the imaginations of people for more than 100 years. She became a symbol and to this day her story fascinates. But was she a real-life villain or scapegoat?

Image of Mata Hari in costume, her life was full of excesses, seduction, and betrayal but was she a real-life villain or scapegoat?

Early Life

Born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands on August 7, 1876, she was the eldest daughter of prosperous hatter, Adam Zelle, and Antje van der Meulen. She learned early that she could get what she wanted by pleasing men. Her doting father gave her extravagant gifts. 

Her dark, exotic looks made her stand out amongst her peers. A schoolmate compared her to and orchid amongst dandelions (blond Dutch children).

When Margaretha was thirteen, her father abandoned the family for another woman. Her mother passed away two years later. At fourteen, she was sent to a Teacher’s School in Sneek. She was expelled at sixteen for having an affair with the married headmaster of the school. This time she went to live with her uncle in The Hague. The city brimmed full of colonial officials who had served in the Dutch Indies (Indonesia).


At eighteen, she answered a newspaper advertisement. Captain Rudolf MacLeod wanted to meet, and marry, “a girl of pleasant character.” Margaretha knew that officers in the Indies lived in large houses with many servants. Engaged six days after they met, they married in July 1895. She was nineteen. He was thirty.  

But she never saw the large house and servants. MacLeod owed a lot of money. He also was an alcoholic, abusive, and had many extramarital affairs. 

The Dutch Indies

They travelled to the Dutch Indies with their infant son in 1897. While on the ship, Margaretha learned MacLeod gave her syphilis. A disease, of nearly epidemic proportions among the Dutch colonial soldiers. The disease had no known cure at the time. Treatments contained mercury compounds. Toxic compounds they believed would cure syphilis. 

In the Dutch Indies, MacLeod continued his bad behavior. Margaretha’s beauty and flirtatious ways gained attention from the other soldiers and the ire of her husband. She gave birth to a daughter, Louise Jeanne,  in 1898.

A Child’s Death

In 1899, McLeod got a promotion to garrison commander in another part of the Dutch Indies. He left his wife and children to look for a home there. During this time, both their children fell ill, probably from congenital syphilis. When MacLeod returned home, he took the children to the base doctor. The doctor treated them with the mercury compound. Some reports say he overdosed the children. Margaretha’s two-year-old son, Norman-John, died. Her daughter survived but her marriage did not. They returned to the Netherlands in 1902 and separated. Eventually they divorced.

A New Life

Some sources say Margaretha studied Indonesian dance while in the Dutch Indies during a separation from MacLeod. Other sources say she had never had formal dance instruction. Regardless, she reinvented herself. 

‘I’m tired of fighting life and I want one of two things: either Nonnie lives with me and I behave like a decent mother, or I’m going to enjoy the beautiful life being offered to me here. I know that that life ends in tragedy – but I’m over that.’

Mata Hari

She moved to Paris in 1903. She created a personality, a stage name, Mata Hari. Translated the name meant “eye of the dawn.”

Mata Hari’s Success

In 1905 Mata Hari made her first appearance with a performance in the Musée Guimet, an Asian art museum in Paris. Her scant, exotic clothing, sensual moves, and her dance “stories” gained her instant fame. 

She avoided indecent exposure charges by claiming that her dances were sacred temple dances from the Indies. During performances, she explained, in French, Dutch, English, German, and Malay: “My dance is a sacred poem . . . One must always translate the three stages that correspond to the divine attributes of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—creation, fecundity, destruction.”

Her dances sold out all over Europe. Aristocrats, diplomats, top military officers, and many wealthy men gave her lavish gifts. She lived an outrageous lifestyle of plenty and glamor while French families were doing without basics and sending their men to die in the war. 

Courtesan and Spy

As she aged and new, younger dancers became more popular than she, dance wasn’t as lucrative. But she had plenty of lovers. She became a courtesan. 

Her travels as a courtesan took her to The Hague in the fall of 1915. There, the honorary German consul of Amsterdam offered her 20,000 francs to spy for Germany. She accepted the money. She considered it repayment for her property the Germans had seized at the start of the war. 


On her way back to France at a British port, an intelligence officer questioned all the passengers. While the officer found nothing to incriminate Mata Hari, he noted that because of her wealth, beauty, and language skills, she was not above suspicion and should not be allowed to return to the U. K.

When she returned to Paris, agents of the newly formed Deuxième Bureau (counterespionage unit) of the Ministry of War shadowed her, listened to her conversations, read her mail, and kept a log of everyone she met. They found no evidence of her gathering or passing information to the Germans.

A Matter of Love

In the meantime, Mata Hari had fallen in love with a Russian captain who fought for the French. Exposed to phosgene gas (mustard gas), he lost the sight in one eye and in danger of going blind. Still, she happily accepted his proposal of marriage. But he was stationed near Vittel. She went to a lover who worked for the War Department (and secretly for the Deuxième Bureau.) She asked him for a safe-passage to Vittel so she could “take the waters” for her health and visit the Russian.

A Double Agent

Hallaure sent her to a house where agents of the Deuxième Bureau waited. The agents told her she could visit her captain if she agreed to spy for France. They promised to pay her a million francs. That was enough money to support her and the Russian after they married. 

Georges Ladoux, head of the Deuxième Bureau, met with Mata Hari several times. He never asked her for specific information nor gave her a specific man to seduce nor gave her a secure means of communicating with him. She sent him a letter by regular post, requesting an advance to buy clothes appropriate for seducing important men. 

First Confession

Instructed by Ladoux, Mata Hari went to Spain and boarded a ship bound for the Netherlands. Once again, she a British intelligence officer questioned her when they landed at a British port. They found nothing incriminating, but she vaguely resembled a German agent. They held her until they could confirm her identity. Desperate to get released, Mata Hari confessed that she was a spy for the French. The British reached out to Ladoux who, according to their notes, would be happy if they found proof that she worked for the Germans. France needed a real-life villain, preferably a foreigner. She fit the bill.

After her release, she enchanted a German diplomat.  She gave him stale newspaper reports and gossip to entice him to tell her about a planned landing in Morocco. She wrote Ladoux, hoping for her payments, and asked for further instructions.

Second Confession

She also had a relationship with Col. Joseph Denvignes from the French legation. He flew into a jealous rage when he saw her with other men. She attempted to calm his jealousy by explaining that she was an agent for the French and about the Moroccan landing. He asked her to get more information. But if she was a real-life villain, she wasn’t very good. Her questions made the Germans suspicious.  She wrote a long letter to Ladoux, explaining what she’d learned. She asked Denvignes to deliver the letter to Ladoux. Ladoux later claimed he never received it.

Her German lover sent a coded message that identified Mata Hari as a spy. He used a code he knew the French had broken. 


When she returned to Paris Ladoux refused to see her. He claimed he had never received her letter. He continued to refuse to see her and hadn’t paid her. By late January 1917, she had to move to increasingly cheaper hotels. 

They arrested Mata Hari on February 13, 1917. Her interrogator was a hard man who hated “immoral” women like Mata Hari. He placed her in one of Paris’s worst prisons. She stayed in isolation without access to medical treatments, clean clothes, soap, or money for food. They denied her regular access to her attorney. Her attorney was a former lover who had no experience with military trials. 

Her Trial and Death

The prosecution aimed to prove that Mata Hari was a real-life villain. They claimed that she caused the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers. No one gave any evidence of how she did this, nor an explanation of how she could do this.

During her trial, Ladoux claimed to have intercepted messages between Madrid and Berlin that identified Mata Hari as a spy. No one else saw the original messages. Inexplicably, the original messages vanished before her trial. The charges against her were vague. The prosecution did not offer a single piece of information that she passed to the Germans. They presented plenty of evidence of her “immoral” lifestyle. 

Her lawyer’s defense offered the opinions of her lovers. They convicted her on all eight counts and sentenced to death by firing squad. Her attorney filed appeals and a request for a pardon. All were denied.

They took her from her cell before dawn on October 15, 1917. She refused a blindfold, stood before the stake, and calmly faced her executioners. 

The Myth

French newspapers vilified her. Myths around her became “fact.” To the French she was a real-life villain. She symbolized the dangerous woman, the seductress, the double agent, the spy. 

Several days after her death, they arrested Ledoux on charges of espionage. Eventually he was cleared of all charges. 

France sealed Mata Hari’s trial records for 100 years.

In 1930, Germany exculpated Mata Hari. 

At some point, Mata Hari told her servant to destroy all her possessions after her execution. The servant didn’t do it. In 1930, researchers in Hollywood planning a film about Mata Hari received two scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings, playbills, and calling cards. 

In 1984, American journalist Russel Warren Howe opened her records. They only allowed him to take notes and photograph some of her letters. He wrote a book, Mata Hari—the True Story. He says the French needed a foreign scapegoat so they framed Mata Hari. http

The exhibition, Mata Hari, the myth and the maiden, displayed the largest collection of Mata Hari memorabilia  in the Museum of Friesland in Leeuwarden from 14 October 2017 to 2 April 2018.

Was Mata Hari a real-life villain? She certain had a life of loss, of excesses, seduction, and betrayal. She agreed to be a double agent. There’s no doubt about that. But did she actually pass relevant information to the Germans?

Was she a real-life villain or a scapegoat? Personally, I think she was an opportunist with a vivid imagination. She may have been a narcissist. Certainly, she lived a life of excesses, seduction, and betrayal. But I think she would like the larger-than-life drama and mythology of her story today. 

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