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Legendary Spy: Mata Hari

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Mata Hari

Mata Hari

Mata Hari had her most successful career as a professional dancer. In 1916, she accepted an offer from France to be a spy for them. Hari worked for a French army captain by the name of George Ladoux. She agreed to pass on military secrets she obtained from her dealings with Germans. Shortly after she began working as a spy for France, she was accused of being a spy for Germany. Hari was found guilty of being a double agent and executed on October 15, 1917, by a French firing squad.

Young Mata Hari

Young Mata Hari

Early Years

On August 7, 1876, Mata Hari was born as Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. She had three younger brothers. Her father's name was Adam Zelle and her mother's name was Antje van der Meulen. Her father owned a hat shop. He was a success when it came to investing. This is how Hari's family became wealthy. She had an extravagant childhood. It involved exclusive schools and more. Her father had to eventually declare bankruptcy when she was 13 years old. Her parents divorced and her mother soon died. Hari's family fell apart. She was sent to live with her godfather. When she was finished with school, Hari decided to become a kindergarten teacher. The headmaster at the school where she was attending started to flirt with her. This made her godfather angry, and he removed her from the school. A few months after this incident, she left for an uncle's home located in The Hague.

Mata Hari marriage

Mata Hari marriage


When Hari was 18, she answered an advertisement in a Dutch newspaper. It was placed by a Dutch Army Captain named Rudolf MacLeod. He was looking for a wife. On July 11, 1895, Hari married McLeod in Amsterdam. This marriage made it possible for Hari to be part of the Dutch upper class. It also gave her financial security. She moved with MacLeod to the east side of the island of Java. The couple had two children. A daughter named Jeanne and a son named Norman. MacLeod was an alcoholic and physically abusive to Hari. He blamed her for his lack of being promoted. MacLeod also kept a concubine. Hari eventually abandoned him and moved in with another Dutch officer. During this time, she studied Indonesian traditions. Hari also joined a local dance company. This is when she took on the artistic name of Mata Hari. It is the word for “sun” in the local Indonesian language.


MacLeod was eventually able to convince Hari to return to him. Things did not change between the couple. Their children suddenly became very sick. Their daughter Jeanne survived the sickness, but their son Norman died. The couple then moved back to the Netherlands and officially separated. In 1906, their divorce became final. Hari was awarded custody of their daughter. MacLeod refused to pay court-ordered support. When their daughter visited MacLeod, he decided not to return her to Hari. She did not have the financial resources to fight her former husband in the courts. Hari felt forced to accept the situation.

Mata Hari dancing

Mata Hari dancing

Dancing Career

Hari moved to Paris in 1903. This is when she worked in a circus as a horse rider. Hari still struggled to make a living. To supplement her income, Hari posed as a model for various artists. She started to gain fame from her performances as an exotic dancer in 1904. Hari soon became known as an exotic dancer who was flirtatious, promiscuous and happy to flaunt her beautiful body. She captivated male audiences. Hari became a popular success on March 13, 1905. This is when she performed her act at Musée Guimet. It is believed her provocative style earned worldwide acclaim. During her act, Hari would slowly shed her clothing. She would stop when she wore only a jeweled breastplate as well as some jeweled ornaments on her arms and head.

End of Dancing Career

After 1912, Hari's dancing career went into decline. She performed her last dancing show on March 13, 1915. Hari then became a successful courtesan known for her eroticism. She had relationships with politicians, high-ranking military officers as well as other influential people in several countries. When World War I started, she was often viewed and a promiscuous woman as well as an irresistible seductress.


Hari became involved with a Russian pilot serving with French pilots during World War I. He was shot down during battle and badly injured. Hari wanted to see him. The French agreed to let Hari see the man she loved. Before this could happen, they demanded she work as a spy for France against the Germans. Hari was told to obtain as much information as possible by seducing the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. His name was Wilhelm Victor August Ernst. The French agreed to pay Hari one million francs to perform this act of espionage.

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Double Agent

In 1916, Hari traveled to Madrid, Spain. There she tried to arrange a meeting with Wilhelm Victor August Ernst. It is alleged this is when she offered to share French war secrets with Germans in exchange for money. She was given the German spy code name H-21. The French intercepted messages sent by Hari to the Germans. The Germans knew the code they were using had been broken by the French. Some believe this was an intentional act to have Hari arrested by the French.

Mata Hari prison picture

Mata Hari prison picture

Arrest and Trial

On February 13, 1917, Hari was arrested in Paris. On July 24, 1917, she was charged with spying for Germany and put on trial. The French alleged her actions caused the death of approximately 50,000 soldiers. Neither British nor French intelligence officers had concrete evidence against her. They alleged secret ink was discovered in her room. Hari claimed it was part of her makeup. Hari eventually admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat to spy on France. She claimed she only gave the Germans insignificant information. Hari stated her loyalty was always with France.


The case against Mata Hari received maximum focus from the French press. This caused a false belief concerning her importance in influencing the activities in the war. Many historians agree that Mata Hari was never an important spy. It is believed she was made a scapegoat for the failures of French military leaders.

Mata Hari execution

Mata Hari execution


On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad consisting of 12 French soldiers. For her execution, Mata Hari wore a tailored Amazonian suit that had been made just for the occasion. As Hari stood before the firing squad, she was not bound. Hari also refused to be blindfolded. Before her death, Hari blew kisses to the firing squad in a final act of defiance.





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