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There’s always something fascinating when it comes to perceived government conspiracies.
Whether the initial rumor started from a beat writer who was looking for revenge on a past job or colleague, or the agency in question slipped up to the public, there is always room for another government scandal.
One particularly juicy incident in history was the legend of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, otherwise known as Mata Hari.
As it goes, she was a Dutch exotic dancer and mistress, who apparently had a dark secret. Eventually, though, she would be convicted of being a German spy, ultimately being executed by a firing squad in France.
Getting to Know Mata Hari
Before diving into the conspiracy, let’s get to know the woman in question.
Mata Hari was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876. She had three brothers, and her father was a very successful businessman. This led to Mata Hari living a profligate lifestyle as a child. Living this way does have its consequences, though, and in 1889, her father’s fortunes ran dry.
This caused a divide within the family, starting with her parents’ divorce. Shortly after, her mother died in 1891. Her death did not help the issues within, which led to Mata Hari moving to live with her godfather, and then with her uncle.
At age 18, after unsuccessful stints as a kindergarten teacher, she found an ad in the newspaper requesting a wife. This ad was put out by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod.
She answered his call, and they became a married couple in 1895.
Shortly after the two were betrothed, they were forced to move to Malaysia, which plays a major role in how she obtained her fame later.
The Marriage Did Not Go Well for Zelle
Unfortunately, even though the couple had two children, the marriage was a major failure.
Mata Hari was regularly beaten by the Army Captain, who had an alcohol problem that stifled his promotion within the Army. Among these issues, the officer also kept a concubine on hand for his own pleasure.
Ultimately displeased with her husband, she left him temporarily.
This turned into a good thing, as during this time away from him, she discovered the art of dancing and Indonesian traditions, of which she practiced for several months. She learned the ways, and adopted her own techniques, which she called the “temple dance.”
With her newfound knowledge, she moved to France in the early 1900s.
There Was a Happy Ending In-Store, At First
As fate would have it, Zelle would end up as a famous courtesan during the outbreak of World War I.
The nature of her show and dance stemmed from her putting on an act of Indian dance, which consisted of her slowly stripping nude. These shows would lead to, among other things, extra activity between high-ranking military officials of various nationalities.
If you’re wondering how she got her name, it was all part of the act.
To show she was of “authentic” Indian descent, she coined her stage name, Mata Hari, meaning eye of the day in the Indonesian language.
The cards were, seemingly, stacked in her favor at the outset of her arrival. Beginning in 1905, the Parisian people were excited about and leaned into a fad of Oriental nature. This meant that Mata Hari was able to take full advantage of her exotic looks and cultural background from her time in the Indies.
The Craft of the Dancer
She penned herself as a Hindu artist, using veils to cover up any body parts she wanted men to fantasize over.
Of course, over the course of the dance and act, those same veils would be artfully dropped throughout. Her first performance came at the Musée Guimet, which is an Asian art museum in the French capital. From her, she gathered historic praise.
There were over 600 invitees, all of which were the wealthiest within Paris, which made it easy to please them.
During this time, any other person may have been swiftly arrested for such actions. But not Margaretha, as she took the time to thoroughly think through what she was doing. To get around the laws of the time, she made sure to explain the nature of her dances at every performance.
The people didn’t know any better, of course, and simply bought into the fact that these truly were sacred dances from the Indonesian people.
The Implications of Her Performances
Because her dances were erotic and sensual, it made it easy for rich individuals to want to spend more on more intimate interactions with Mata Hari.
All her performances were based on different tales from her life experiences, and everyone ate it up. This led to her title as the most beautiful, desirable, and glamorous woman in Paris. Because of this top-notch title, she was able to get in with many different figures.
The list would include those in politics, those of military background, businessmen, and even aristocrats and financers.
Over the years, she would dance to sold-out stages and venues across the European countries, amassing a big following and raking in the dough in the process. Eventually, though, this life would come to an end. Her career as an unforgettable dancer would wind down, but the newfound life as a courtesan would blossom, as rich and powerful men still wanted a piece of her extravagance.
How the French Public Reacted to Her Actions
During this time, World War I began. One of the bloodiest and largest wars that the world has ever seen didn’t stop Mata Hari from keeping her riches and overindulging in the city of Paris.
As you might guess, the French public wasn’t too fond of this behavior.
Normal families couldn’t afford heat or food and were sending countless brothers, husbands, and sons to battle in the Great War. On the flipside, Zelle would be living a life of splendor. This may have influenced how the French government decided to prosecute the actions of the woman later in her life.
Traveling Opened the Door to Spy Culture
Most people with money spend it on travel, and Mata Hari was no different.
What was different came from what she learned from her travels. During 1915, she was offered a bribe of 20,000 francs — which is the equivalent to about $61,000 in today’s U.S. currency — to spy for Germany by Karl Kroemer, the German consul of Amsterdam.
Why It Could Be a Real Framing
While there is a lot of controversy surrounding the execution of Mata Hari, there is evidence that suggests Zelle was framed to be a distraction for the French people.
During this time, the French were taking huge casualties along the Western front in the war. As such, it would make sense that this “problem” conveniently fell into their hands. One of the easiest ways to satisfy a public whose confidence is fleeting comes in the form of spy talk and double agent status, which is exactly what the French did.
During the hardest portions of the war for the French, Verdun, and Somme, the French authorities saw it wise to enlist a prominent spy to raise the spirits of the country.
Enlist her they did, and her first assignment was to travel to Spain and gather information on high-ranking officials of that area. Unfortunately for her, she was stopped at the British port where the authorities questioned her.
They found her remarkably like a German spy known as Clara Benedix.
As such, they held her for questioning. Mata Hari was terrified of this incident and confessed to being a French spy.
After this problem, the relationship between Zelle and the French government would never be the same. She was subsequently spied on herself, with the French building a case against their past woman spy.
Everything came to fruition on the night of February 12, 1917, as she was arrested on the grounds of being a German spy. This led to a snowball effect for the once beloved woman.
Once everything was said and done, she would be charged with 8 crimes during a trial in July 1917. Nothing could save the poor woman at this point, as she was convicted on all 8 counts against her and put to death by firing squad on October 15, 1917.
The Reality of the Events Before Her Death
While there may seem like evidence against her, the fact is Mata Hari’s case had little-to-no hard evidence to convict her of any crimes, let alone convict her to be a German spy.
All the charges against her were vague, with no specific terminology used on the grounds of passing enemy knowledge. Her lawyer proved to be ineffective, largely because the prosecutor had the public on his side.
Overall, the prosecutor admitted that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her later, but the public needed a swift and decisive victory for morale.
It’s crazy to think that someone would wrongly convict another for the grounds of their own people, but with the case of Mata Hari, we see first-hand how that can happen. It was an unfortunate end to a life that had vast ups and downs throughout, ultimately ending in a sacrificial way.
You’re allowed to believe whatever you’d like, but it really does seem like the young woman from the Netherlands was framed by the French government and was not a German spy.
Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain