Why did Margaretha Zelle, a beautiful exotic dancer, die by execution? Known professionally as Mata Hari, Zelle broke barriers with her sexuality and charm, but her life ended tragically during a turbulent time in history. This is her story.
Born beautiful, Zelle’s sparkling personality always earned her the attention of men. Her family fell apart when she was young, so she lived with a godfather before going to study to be a teacher. The headmaster took an interest in her, so her godfather removed her from the school. At 18 years old, Zelle answered an ad for marriage by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain. After just six days of knowing each other, Rudolf MacLeod asked her to marry him. She accepted and they married in 1895.
For Zelle, the marriage was about financial stability. In 1897, she learned her husband had given her syphilis. He was also an alcoholic and frequently beat her because of other men’s attentions. They lived on the island of Java and Rudolf kept a concubine, which was considered socially acceptable. Zelle left her husband for a while and moved in with another Dutch officer who encouraged her interest in Indonesian culture. She joined a dance company and took on the name “Mata Hari,” which means “eye of the day.”
When Zelle and Rudolph moved back to the Netherlands, they separated. They had two children, but their son had died in Java after a doctor “accidentally” poisoned both two children while they suffered from effects of their inherited syphilis. Only the girl survived. In 1906, Zelle got her divorce and custody of her daughter. Rudolph never paid child support, however, and one day he simply refused to give the girl back after a visit. Zelle couldn’t fight him legally, so she let her daughter go. Jeanne would die at age 21.
Life as a dancer
In 1905, a year before her divorce, Zelle was making headlines as Mata Hari. Her dances were extremely erotic. She would progressively remove her clothing until all that was left was jewelry, a jeweled bra, and a bodystocking with the same tone as her skin. She also modeled as her character in the nude. Exotic dances like this were accepted because they were framed as authentic sacred Indian dance. Zelle’s alter ego – Mata Hari – was a Javanese princess born into dance. She sold out shows across Europe, convincing many that she was actually “foreign” and “exotic.”
All for love
Zelle enjoyed success for the next decade or so, engaging in many relationships with politicians, military officers, and other influential figures. By 1916, she was mostly retired from dance and in love with the man she would call “the love of her life.” Maslov was a Russian pilot and just 21-years old. He wanted to marry Zelle. That summer, however, he was shot down in a dogfight with the Germans and became blind. Zelle asked for permission to visit him at the front, which wasn’t usually allowed for citizens of neutral countries (the Netherlands). However, she was granted permission if she became a spy for France. Anxious to see Maslov and earn money to support them, she said yes.
Zelle’s career as a spy did not go well. She didn’t get any useful information and talked too much to the Germans, possibly even offering to sell secrets. In 1917, she was arrested for being a double agent and put on trial. The evidence against her was most likely doctored by the French themselves, but Zelle’s lawyer didn’t do any better. She was sentenced to execution by firing squad. She refused to be tied or blindfolded, instead facing the men bravely. The supervisor is reported to have said: “By God! This lady knows how to die.”
Zelle’s body went unclaimed, so was used for medical research. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Paris Museum of Anatomy for some time, but it’s gone now. It might have been stolen. Both her head and rest of her remains are still missing. Her legacy still fascinates people. Just this year, Dark Horse Comics gave her her own miniseries.