Born Margaret Gertrude Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, Holland.
Father Adam Zelle, a Dutch hatter and his Javanese wife Antje van der Meulen. The family was very wealthy and well to do and raised her in a very happy home with a comfortable lifestyle. After her mother’s death in 1890, she was sent by her father to live in a convent. Briefly attending a teaching school but was expelled after allegedly having sex with the school’s headmaster.
In 1894, answered a “lonely hearts club” advertisement placed by John Rudolph MacLeod, a Dutch colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies, who was 20 years her senior.
The couple married in 1895 and moved to Java where they lived until 1901. The couple’s early years were anything but ideal as she engaged in scandalous affairs and he often slept with other women in their house while she was in the next room.
With custody of her daughter, Margaret struggled financially, especially after her husband stopped ceased sending support payments. What money she did have she used on dancing lessons, learning the Oriental dances she had seen in Java. After sending her daughter to live with relatives, she embarked upon her new career, performing the mysterious dances of the god Siva. Her early efforts were unsuccessful, as she was unable to secure bookings and was alleged to have worked as a prostitute for a period of time.
When World War I broke out, Mata Hari had decided to engage in another exciting profession – espionage. Having already engaged in numerous affairs with numerous wealthy men and counted many of the most important people in the military and intelligence community as her paramours.
The Chief of the Berlin Police Department, Traugott von Jagow was one of them and he suggested to her that she include pillow talk in her meeting with her important clients, obtaining secrets as well as money from them. She was given the German code number H.21, which would prove significant years later.
Having been granted German citizenship, she was ordered to make her way into France where she began passing secrets to the Germans. Although French agents kept her under surveillance, they were unable to collect sufficient evidence against her to arrest her. Much of her information, at this point, was vital, helping to prepare the Germans develop their strategy to overpower the French troops.
French counterintelligence officers finally grew wise to her and she was confronted by Captain Georges Ladoux. Ladoux informed her that he was going to have her deported back to Holland, whereupon she shocked him by proposing to spy on behalf of France and against Germany. Bragging that she had access to high level German intelligence, she offered that she could make it available to France. In so offering this aid, she destroyed her original alibi that she was not involved in espionage nor privy to any intelligence. Ladoux, pretended to take her up on her offer and sent her off to Brussels with the names of six French agent with whom she could make contact. Almost immediately thereafter, Ladoux received information from the British that one of the six agents had been arrested by the Germans, thus convincing him that she was a considerable security risk and ordered her arrested immediately.
German intelligence had come to find that Mata Hari had been identified and therefore compromised. She was therefore of little use to them. After offering her services to other Foreign nations, she boldly demanded from Jagow that she be paid in full for her espionage activities. Jagow ordered her to return to France where she would be paid. French authorities arrested her on February 13, 1917 and took her to the Fauborg Saint-Denis prison.
Mata Hari was tried for espionage in July 1917, represented by one of the top attorneys in France. Although much of the evidence against her was weak, French authorities were able to show that the payment she returned to France to collect was designated for German agent H.21. The “H” signified that she was an agent for Germany before World War I started. She argued that the payment was for her sexual services and not for espionage. The jury was unmoved, quickly returning a guilty verdict and sentencing her to death. On October 15, 1917 a calm Mata Hari faced a firing squad and was executed.
Historians believe that Mata Hari, despite her notoriety and name recognition was a rather incompetent and ineffective spy, caught up in the excitement of her own fascination. Most believe, as did much of the intelligence community of her time, that she was in way over her head and did not realize the ramifications of her duplicitous activities, naively believing that she could charm her way out of any situation. In later years, however, Mata Hari has gained many supporters. In 1932, the French government admitted that the evidence and therefore the case against her was negligible at best while the German government labeled her contributions to its war efforts as insubstantial.