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Mata Hari, the greatest courtesan or a spy?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

One of the great unanswerable questions of World War I, was whether Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McLeod, otherwise known as Mata Hari, was a German spy? In this blog post, we look at the evidence in the British Secret Service files and contemporary newspaper accounts, to find out more about the mistory and myth surrounding Mata Hari.

Mata Hari’s Early Life

In October 1917, British newspapers reported that a French firing squad had shot the spy known as Mata Hari. Reporters variously claimed that she was born in India, Java, Malaysia, the East Indies and even Japan.

Margaretha’s father’s ship in Leeuwarden

In fact Margaretha Zelle was born on 7 August 1878 in Leeuwarden the Netherlands. Her mother was Antje van de Meulen. Rumours would circulate that she was Javanese, but birth records show she was born in Friesland in the Netherlands. Margaretha’s father, Adam Zelle, was a wealthy hatter, who spoilt his daughter rotten with extravagant gifts, such as a goat drawn carriage, and educated her privately. But the luxury of her life vanished overnight. Her father’s oil investments faltered and he abandoned his family. When she was 15, her mother died. Now, she spent her life with different relatives and training to be a teacher, but she wanted more.

Aged 18, she took matters into her own hand. Responding to a lonley hearts ad, she met Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolph Mcleod, a Dutchman of Scots ancestry at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He was twenty one years older than she was, and was looking for a “girl of pleasant character – object matrimony.” Six days later, she agreed to marry him. On 11 July 1895 she walked out of the Consulate in Amsterdam as Mrs. McLeod.

Married Life

In May 1897, the couple set sail to Malang on the island of Java on the SS Princess Amalia. Mcleod’s rank gave her status on the island. Once installed she socialised, gossiped and indulged her love for fashion. She studied traditional Indoneisan culture and dance, joining a local dance group and naming herself Mata Hari. In Malay, this means eye of the dawn. McLeod was not happy with her behaviour and early on cracks appeared in the marriage. He was a drunk who kept a concubine, abused his wife and gave her syphilis. Eventually she could stand it no more and moved in with another Dutch officer. But McLeod convinced her to move back. Their reconciliation was short-lived. In1902 the couple returned to Holland, and Margaretha left her husband for good.

Her Children

Leaving a spouse is never easy, especially when a child is involved. Margaretha had given birth to two children, Norman-John and Louise-Jeanne. Little Norman had died aged two in 1899 in Java, probably of congenital syphilis. But there was a mystery about his death. Rumours flew around the social set in Indonesia that the nanny had poisoned both children.. McLeod then killed the gardener in revenge. But, police and military authorities bought no charges. against the nanny or McLeod. The story seems to be no more than gossipy speculation. Once back in Europe, Margaretha had to earn money to support herself, Non and the lavish lifestyle she craved. Margaretha caught the train to Paris, leaving Non with relatives in Holland.

Paris – the early days

Paris glittered with the Belle Epoque As the wheel at the Moulin Rouge spun, girls swirled thier legs in the can-can. Cabaret and cafe culture ruled. Artists painted and sketched in Montmartre. Zelle had few careers open to her. She tried performing as a circus horse rider and posed as an artist’s model. But tit was hard to make the rent on her Montmatre flat. She needed an angle and she found it in dance.

Modern dance was sweeping Europe. The American, Isadora Duncan took as her inspiration, reliefs of people on Greek vases. In Paris, the Louvre inspired her to create other innovative dancers. Another American, Ruth St. Denis saw a poster advertising cigarettes with an image of the Goddess Isis. She explored Egyptian and Oriental mysticism, and in 1906 she performed Radha which drew on Hindu mythology. With her experience of Indonesian dance, Margaretha had her inspiration.

Mata Hari, Exotic Dancer

Dancers often performed in private salons in front of the social elite. Her first performance exotic dancer, dancing wither nude or in in flimsy transparent clothes, Zelle took Paris by storm. Carefree and flirtatious, her Bohemian lifestyle opened the doors to elite society.

American Ruth St Denis took an Egypitan on a packet of cigarettes for her inspiration. Tsh poster portrayed Isis enthroned in a temple. Her dances explored Oriental mysticsm conveyed by goddesses, and in 1906 she perfromed Radha, which drew on Hindu mythology.

Her Star Wanes

But by WWI her star had waned and her reputation plummeted. No longer the mistress of wealthy men, she fell in love with a young Russian pilot. The Germans offered her money to spy for them, as did the French. She slept with Geman officers passing information to the French, but they did not trust the Dutch divorcee. When the Germans sent a radio message claiming she was a German spy, the French arrested her. At her trial she vehemently denied she was a traitor. But France was suffering heavy defeats and blamed her for the loss of 50,000 soldiers. Found guilty she was executed in 1917.

But the French, British and German files which are now open to the public. Germany have exonerated her. And modern writers conclude she was a political scapegoat. As a divorced promiscuous foreigner it was easy for the French to find her guilty of being a spy.

Did other females involved in espionage think Mata Hari, innocent?

In 1933, a Mrs Compton gave an interview to Reuter. She was the famous Mme. Marthe Richard, a French spy known as “The Lark.” During World War she worked for Ladoux. The French Secret Service admitted she was their most successful spy and France awarded her the legion of Honour for “extraordinary services to her country.” In Madrid Richard, a former Parisian prostitute, became the mistress of von Krohn, the Naval Attache of the German Navy.

Mata Hari during World War I

“I believe Mata Hari, the beautiful Dutch-woman, shot by the French as a German spy, was innocent,” said Mrs Compton. “I knew Mata Hari well when I worked for the French in Madrid during the war. She was a fine dancer, but to my mind she had not the nerve or the intelligence required to do secret service work.

“Later on she danced in Paris and became intimate with a French officer. He has himself told me, however, that he never discussed the war with her nor did she ever attempt to draw him in to discussions of military matters. They were just in love, and that was all there was to it.

But her liaison in Spain had made her a marked woman, and well – things happen in war time you know.”

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail – Thursday 26 January 1933, accessed at the British Newspaper Article

The German Spy Recruiter?

Conversely, Fraulein Doktor Elsbeth Schragmuller, had a different story to tell. The German Secret service sent Fraulein Doktor,, to Antwerp to recruit and train spies. Dying in a sanatorium near Zurich in 1934 under the name of Anne Marie Lesser, she maintained that she had recruited and betrayed Mata Hari.

Elsbeth Schragmuller, Fraulein Doktor

“Mata Hari was my protege, but when she wanted to leave I could only see that she was removed. If I had not, the rest of us would have been exposed.

It was my job to receive all Mata Hari’s information for relaying into Germany. It was also my duty to remove her. I let the French find out, as if by accident, what she was doing.

Nottingham Evening Post, – Thursday 23 August 1934 – accessed at the British Newspaper archive.

According to Fraulein Doktor, Mata Hari bought about her own death through carelessness. At the time of her arrest arrested Mata Hari had deposited 20,000 livres in a French bank after a meeting with a German general. Mata Hari said it was her normal tariff to sleep with someone, but Fraulein Doktor did not believe her.

Whether the woman in the Swiss sanatorium was Elsbeth Schragmuller is in doubt. Others say that Fraulein Docktor died in Munich in 1940. It is a cautionary lesson, not to believe everything you read in the newspaper.

Find Out More

You can access the newspapers quoted in this blog through findmypast. Included in the subscription, is free access to the British Newspaper Archive. You may also be able to access the archive through your local library.

Read more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Hari

Read the official British Secret Service files at the UK National Archives

Books About Mata Hari

A Tangled Web by Mary Craig

For stories about other inspirational women during times of war, see




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