On this day in 1917, the exotic dancer Mata Hari is executed by a French firing squad at Vincennes, outside of Paris, for the crime of espionage.
Born Margueretha Gertruida Zelle in a small town in northern Holland and formerly married to a captain in the Dutch army, Mata Hari had performed in Paris as a dancer since 1903. She adopted an elaborate stage persona, claiming she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient Indian dances by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari, which meant “eye of the dawn.” Her exotic dances soon earned her fans all over Europe, where she packed dance halls from Moscow to Berlin to Madrid, largely because of her willingness to dance almost entirely naked in public.
A courtesan as well as a dancer, Mata Hari amassed an impressive catalog of lovers, including high-ranking military officers and political figures from both France and Germany. With the outbreak of World War I, these relationships immediately made her suspicious to French intelligence, which reportedly put her under surveillance. The circumstances of her alleged spying activities during the war were and remain unclear: It was said that, while in the Netherlands in 1916, she was offered cash by a German consul to report back information obtained on her next visit to France. When British intelligence discovered details of this arrangement, they passed them on to their counterparts in France; Mata Hari was arrested in Paris in February 1917.
Under interrogation by French military intelligence, Mata Hari herself admitted that she had passed outdated information to a German intelligence officer, yet she claimed that she had also been paid to act as a French spy in Belgium (then occupied by the Germans) though she had not informed the French of her prior dealings with the German consul. She was apparently acting as a double agent, though the Germans had apparently written her off as an ineffective one whose activities had produced little intelligence of value.
After a stay in a Paris prison, Mata Hari was tried in a military court and sentenced to death on July 25, 1917. Her trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, however, and many believed the French authorities, as well as the press, trumped her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century” to distract the public from the huge losses the French army was suffering on the Western Front.
After her last-minute plea to the French president for clemency was denied, French officers carried out the death sentence on October 15, 1917. Unbound and refusing a blindfold, Mata Hari was shot by a firing squad at the Caserne de Vincennes, an old fort outside Paris. Viewed by many as the victim of a hysterical French press contemptuous of her career as a dancer and courtesan and seeking a scapegoat, Mata Hari remains one of the most glamorous figures to come out of the shadowy world of espionage, and the archetype of the female spy.