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This woman was an exotic dancer, courtesan and most surprisingly of all a spy during WWI

War is a crazy time – the way in which people interact all over the world is something that is unfamiliar to any other time period.

For many people who are living during a war-torn time, they have to do what they have to do to get by and survive this tumultuous period.  This was definitely true for those who were living during World War I, and possibly even more so than any other time because it was something that was so unknown to anybody.  This was the first time where there was a mass war on an international level, and people had to change their entire lifestyle.

While obviously women, at this time and for many years to come, were not able to participate in combat, there were still things that women could do that contributed to the war effort. A great example of that is the wonderful and notorious woman, Mata Hari.

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod-Zelle in the Dutch East Indies
Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod-Zelle in the Dutch East Indies Photo Credit


Margaretha Zelle and Rudolph Mac Leod
Margaretha Zelle and Rudolph Mac Leod Photo Credit


Rudolpf and Norman John
Rudolpf and Norman John Photo Credit


Mata Hari, whose birth name is actually Margaretha Zelle, did not necessarily have the easiest time of it in life. She was born in the Netherlands and her early life was fairly lavish. Her dad was a successful businessman who could afford to send her to nice, exclusive schools until she was the age of thirteen.  Then her father lost his money; her parents divorced and her mother died not too long after that.

Her father eventually remarried, which did cause the family to fall apart even more.  Margaretha Zelle went to live with her godfather.

While there she was studying to be a kindergarten teacher, but unfortunately she was removed from the institution –  her headmaster was flirting with her and her godfather would not stand for this.  This caused her to run away from her home at the age of eighteen.

Postcard of Mata Hari in Paris.
Postcard of Mata Hari in Paris. Photo Credit

She then went on to answer an ad in a newspaper from Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod who was looking for a wife; she was soon married to him. As a result of this advantageous marriage, she enjoyed better finances and became a part of the Dutch upper class.  She had two children and moved to Malang on the east side of the island of Java with her husband and children.

At her arrest.
At her arrest. Photo Credit

Unfortunately for her, her marriage was certainly not a success. Her husband was an alcoholic who was not nice to her at all and would take out a lot of his frustrations on her.

He also openly had a concubine, which caused his wife to leave him for a bit and stay with another officer.  She also studied Indonesian traditions extensively, joining a local dance company and learning how to dance more effectively.  This eventually led to her going by the name she is most known by – Mata Hari.

In Amsterdam, 1915
In Amsterdam, 1915 Photo Credit
Mata_hari_en_1907 Photo Credit


Mlle_Mata_Hari_de_l’Odéon. Photo Credit

Margaretha Zelle eventually ending up going back to her husband, but unfortunately, he did not change his ways, and things were still not good between the two. Things only got worse once their two children became very ill, leading to the death of one of them.  Some say that the children were poisoned by enemies of their father, while others believe that the children succumbed to the syphilis they contracted from their parents.

The family moved back to the Netherlands after the death of the son, and this eventually ushered the way for an official separation for Margaretha Zelle and her husband, and eventually, years later, a divorce.

Margaretha Zelle had legal custody of her daughter, and her ex-husband was required to pay child support, but he never did. One time when he was visiting with his daughter, he just took her and did not give her back. Margaretha did not have access to the resources necessary to get her daughter back, so she just had to accept it. Her daughter died at the age of twenty-one.

Mata Hari.
Mata Hari. Photo Credit

Margaretha Zelle struggled for a while to make ends meet. She moved to Paris to perform as a circus horse rider and also posed as a model for artists.  Fortunately for her, things began to pick up as she began to become quite famous as an exotic dancer. She became quite sought after and known by many.  She was flirtatious and knew how to appeal to a lot of people. She became the mistress of a millionaire during this time as well. She posed nearly nude or completely nude for many photos during this period – something that was used by her ex- husband as a reason as to why he should keep custody of their daughter.

Mata-Hari_Paris_1910 Photo Credit

Her famous style was that she wore a bejeweled bra and a body stocking that was similar to the color of her skin so that she would strip down and appear to be nearly nude. She always had a bra on because she was self-conscious about the size of her breasts.

Unfortunately for her, as time went on she began to lose some popularity as many people thought that her claim to fame was a cheap appeal to nudity.

Performing in 1905.
Performing in 1905. Photo Credit


Before the war, she was viewed by many as a dancer and an artist and a free spirit, but as the war approached many put a more negative spin on their view of her and tended to see her as a promiscuous being, involved with many officers and frequently traveling across international borders.

Mata Hari.
Mata Hari. Photo Credit 

Since the Netherlands was neutral in World War I, she was able to freely travel across international borders, which is something she used to her own benefit.

She was able to talk to many different men but was eventually caught and admitted to partaking in espionage for French authorities. Some are not sure whether this is actually true or she just admitted to it because it made her sound more appealing.

In 1910 wearing head jewellery
In 1910 wearing head jewellery Photo Credit

In 1917, Mata Hari was arrested in her hotel room in Paris and put on trial.  She was accused of spying for the Germans and causing the deaths of at least fifty thousand soldiers. She maintained her innocence and said that her work as a dancer brought her to international places and she was certainly not a spy. But the common belief was that she was lying and there seemed to be mounting evidence to support that belief.  In October of 1917, at the age of 41, she was executed by a firing squad. Her body was not claimed by any family members and was later used for medical studies.

Here is another spy story from us:“The old man and the KGB” – the time when Hemingway was a Russian spy

German documents that were released in the 1970s actually did prove that she was a German spy for quite some time.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News