I admit, she was a sinner, and an experienced one at that. But was she responsible for the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers, as she was charged with? In six short months of 1917 the arrogant and inept commander of the French armies General Robert Nivelle was responsible for throwing away the lives of 33,000 Frenchmen, and the wounding at least 182,000 more, while driving the French army to mutiny. During that same spring Margaretha Zelle seduced officers of the French, German and Russian Army, usually just one man at a time. If anything she improved morale, if just one man at a time. But she was the one they shot.
They came for her in the dark, before five on the morning of Wednesday, 15 October, 1917. They hoped to find her awake when they opened the door of cell number 12, but a nun had to touch her shoulder to wake Margaretha. The martinet who had prosecuted her, Captain Pierre Bouchardon, informed the startled woman, “Have courage! Your request for clemency has been rejected by the President of the Republic. The time for atonement has come.” Her first reaction was panic. She cried out, "It's not possible! It's not possible!” Then, luckily for her executioners, Margaretha got herself under control, whispering to a nun, “Don't be afraid, Sister, I shall know how to die.”
It took her thirty years, but Margaretha Zella eventually learned how to live. Adam Zelle's “little princess” was the only daughter in a Fisian speaking Dutch family with four sons. When she was 13 her doting father lost his hat shop and went bankrupt . Over the next three years her parents divorced, her mother Antje died and her father remarried. The siblings from the first marriage were scattered to relatives and Margaretha was eventually shuffled off to an uncle. Three years later Margaretha answered an ad in a lonely hearts magazine and married Rudolf MacLeod, a mustached Dutch Colonial Army captain, more than twice her age. A year later she gave birth to a son, Norman. The following year Rudolf was posted back to the Dutch East Indies. In 1898, now in Indonesia, the 21 year old Margaretha gave birth to a daughter, named Jeanne. That same year Margaretha began studying local culture, and in her native dance class she adopted the Malay name meaning “Eye of the Day.”: Mata Harji.
She dressed quickly in the cold cell, in the few threads of respectability nine months of imprisonment had left her - a gray suit, a blouse and stockings, with a blue coat slung over her shoulders, and topped by a jaunty tri-cornered hat to hide her gray hair. In the courtyard of the Prison de Saint-Lazare (above), they hustled her into an automobile, with the windows blocked out. Before five thirty that morning they drove her away from the River Seine, southward in the cold dark empty streets, past the palace of Palace of Versailles. Turning right on the Avenue de la Pipinere, and then right again onto the Avenue Mufs du Pare, the car passed through the stone gates of a cavalry barracks.
A year after their arrival in Indonesia , both children fell ill. Two year old Norman died, and the marriage drowned in recrimination. Ruldolf wrote his family that Margaretha was "scum of the lowest kind, a woman without heart, who cares nothing for anything". Margaretha told her family, “I prefer to die before he touches me again. My children caught a disease from him.” She dreamed of living “like a colorful butterfly in the sun.” Rudolf resigned from the army, and the family returned to Holland in 1901. In 1903, leaving her daughter with Rudolf, Margaretha moved to Paris, but the 5'10” olive skinned woman could only find work riding horseback in a circus, and as an artists' model. In desperation, she even sought work as an exotic dancer.
As the car pulled to a stop, an officer shouted out, “Sabremain! Presentez-armes!” and the twelve khaki uniformed Zouave Sergeants snapped to attention. None of them knew their intended target was to be a woman until Margaretha stepped out of the car. It is unlikely any of them knew who the 41 year old woman was even then, since her trial had been secret, and the peak of her fame was a decade passed. Quickly, efficiently, Margaretha was led to the chosen spot in front of an eight foot berm, which was to act as a backstop for the firing squad. Her coat was removed, while a Captain quickly droned through her death sentence, and a sergeant looped a rope around her waist, binding her to the execution post. He started to bind her wrists as well, but Margaretha told him, “That will not be necessary.”
The 30 year old Margaretha, with little grace or training, fashioned her image after the bohemian artist dancer, Isadora Duncan. One historian has written, “There can have been no more ludicrous spectacle...than the bogus temple dance with which ''Lady MacLeod, Mata Hari'' rounded off the dinner parties of Parisian high society. Audiences in evening dress peered approvingly... while ''Lady MacLeod''...gyrated to allegedly Oriental strains on the violin, removed a series of veils....and finally collapsed into the sacred, though clearly carnal, embrace of the invisible (god) Siva.” '
She was famous, featured in post cards, and lurid magazine stories. But within five years “anyone who was anyone in Europe had seen her dance at least once”, and she was competing with dozens of more talented and younger imitators of herself.. By 1908 her career had begun to fade, and she had become a professional courtesan , the mistress to millionaire industrialist Émile Guimet, who was followed by numerous other wealthy men.
A priest whispered a passage from the bible, while an officer offered Margaretha a blindfold. She asked, “Must I wear it?” The officer replied, “If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference.” He turned on his heel and he and the priest strode away, leaving the lady alone, facing the twelve combat veterans (above). The young sublieutenant raised his saber, and shouted “Joue!”, or prepare! Twelve rifles were raised to twelve shoulders. It was just after six in the morning, Wednesday, 15 October, 1917, and through the damp cold clouds, the sun was struggling to rise over the horizon.
At the outbreak of the war in August of 1914, Margaretha was caught in Germany. Two days later, she tried to leave. German custom officials seized her fur coat. Once in Switzerland, the neutral bureaucrats were suspicious of her Dutch papers, and she was returned to Germany. There an army officer offered her 20,000 francs if she would be a spy Margeretha saw the funds as reimbursement for her stolen property. The Germans assigned her the code name H-21.
Margeretha met the eyes of the young sublieutenant and loudly thanked him, but for what was unclear. Perhaps she saw pity in his eyes. Then she blew a kiss to her lawyer, 74 year old Edouard Clunet, and then did the same to the twelve men staring at her over their rifles. Witnesses saw her turn her head away from the guns and nervously smile. The officer's saber flashed down in the gray light. The twelve rifles fired as one. Eleven bullets slammed into her chest. Margeretha Zelle crumpled against the rope binding her to the post. Then, wrote British reporter Henry Wales, “...she seemed to collapse...slowly, inertly...her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face...gazing directly at those who had taken her life...and did not move”.
Margaretha contacted German intelligence only once, and then only at the request of Capt. Georges Ladoux, of French Intelligence. Then British Intelligence intercepted a German radio message about information obtained in Belgium from agent H-21. Shortly after, in February 1917, Margaretha returned to Paris - while General Nivelle was planning his disastrous April offensive - and Ladolux ordered her arrest. Margaretha was charged with spying, but not tried until July - as British armies were suffering during the bloody muddy Passchendaele offensives (above), launched to distract the Germans from the French army's mutiny.
Prosecutor Bouchardon said that hanging on the post, Margaretha “ looked like a heap of skirts.” An officer strode up to the body, drew his pistol, and held it's barrel an inch from Margaretha's right ear. He pulled the trigger, and with a bang! a lead pellet plowed into her brain, demolishing forever whatever was left of the “little princess” and Mati Hari, and everything in between those two images.
At her trial Prosecutor Bourchard had blamed her for the failure of the Nivelle offensive. Her ex-lover Clunet had argued, “Mata Hari has been a courtesan, but never a spy.” But he was allowed to call only one witness in her defense.. After forty minutes of consideration, the six man military jury had sentenced Margaretha to die. The transcripts of her trial were ordered sealed, and will not be released to the public before October, 2017. But thirty years after her death, Bourchard would admit of the case against her, “there wasn't enough evidence to flog a cat”
Four days after Margaretha's death in 1917, the man who had ordered her arrest, Captain Ladoux, was himself arrested, and charged with spying for Germany. He was not tried until after the war, when cooler heads acquitted him. The transcripts from his trial were also ordered sealed for one hundred years.
When Margaretha's ex-husband, Rudolf MacLeod, heard of her execution, he told the reporter, “Whatever she has done in life, she did not deserve that.” The same could have been said of every one, soldier and civilian, who has died in any war. Mata Hari: she died for our sins, as well as he own.
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