Mata Hari was a Dutch dancer, courtesan, and German spy. On this day in 1917, she was executed just before dawn by a firing squad in France.

Early life

Mata Hari was the stage name for Margaret Zelle, born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle on August 7th, 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Her father, Adam ran a successful hat shop and made profitable investments into the oil industry. This made Margaretha’s early life lavish and full of expensive education.

Vera Nijveld

Her father went bankrupt in 1889, unfortunately, which propelled Margaretha into an unhappy marriage with Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod and eventually to a career as a dancer, courtesan, model, and spy.

Espionage career

During World War I, Mata Hari was able to cross borders freely due to her status as a citizen of the Netherlands. At first, she used this ability only to travel and visit Captain Vadim Maslov, a Russian pilot and the love of Margaret’s life. When Maslov was wounded in action, she was only allowed to visit him on the condition that she spy on Germany (where Vadim was being treated) for the French intelligence agency the Deuxième Bureau.

Smithsonian Magazine

The agency wished her to seduce Crown Prince Wilhelm, for whom she had performed a few times before. In 1916, Mata Hari traveled to Madrid and met with German Major Arnold Kalle to ask for a meeting with the Crown Prince. Allegedly, she offered to share French military secrets with the major. Early in 1917, The Deuxième Bureau intercepted messages between Major Kalle and Berlin describing a new intelligence operative, code-named H-21, whose description perfectly matched Mata Hari’s.

The execution of Mata Hari

On the 13th February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested and would be tried as a German spy later that year. She was accused of leaking information that led to the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers.

Mata Hari and her legal defense faced impossible odds during her trial and she was found guilty and sentenced to execution. On this day in 1917, Mata Hari reportedly defiantly blew the firing squad a kiss just before they carried out her execution.