This Day in History

On this day in 1917, the courtesan and exotic dancer Mata Hari was executed for espionage. The seductive female spy was killed by firing squad outside Paris in Vincennes. These days, many historians speculate that she may have been used as a distraction, and her military trial for espionage may have been as much of a stage show as her striptease performances.

Mata Hari first arrived in Paris in 1905, and she soon became famous as an exotic dancer who performed Asian-inspired routines. As her fame grew, she started to tour around Europe, where she would tell stories about being born in an Indian temple, where the priestesses taught her ancient dances and named her Mata Hari, which in Malay means "eye of the day."

Mata Hari packed opera houses and performance halls across Europe from France all the way to Russia. The most popular part of her show seemed to be the fact that she stripped nude during the performance.

Story of Mata Hari's Birth Was Pure Fiction

The story of Mata Hari's birth was pure fiction. Mata Hari actually hailed from northern Holland, where she was born as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in 1876 in a small town. She learned Javanese and Indian dances while living in Malaysia for several years with her former husband, who was a member of the Dutch colonial army.

Mata Hari became famous as a courtesan who had many different lovers, especially high-ranking military men from different nationalities. In 1917, she was arrested on charges of espionage and taken to St. Lazare Prison in Paris. In July 1917, a military trial soon followed. She was charged with distributing secret information about a new war technology developed by the Allies, the tank. Allegedly, the information she revealed caused the deaths of thousands of Allied soldiers. She was sentenced to death.

On Oct. 15, 1917, Mata Hari was killed by firing squad. In her last dramatic display that day, she refused the blindfold she was offered and was shot to death with eyes wide open.

Was Mata Hari's Story Exaggerated?

Historians believe that Mata Hari was working as a German spy and a French double agent. They further speculate that the Germans had dismissed her spying methods as ineffective, and that her pillow talk sessions did not bring any information of value. The military trial against Mata Hari was also filled with circumstantial and overly-biased evidence. Many historians suspect that Mata Hari was portrayed as the greatest woman spy of the century to use her as a scapegoat to distract attention from the intense losses suffered by the French on its western front.

Were Mata Hari's only real crimes a propensity for spinning elaborate yarns about her origin, and a weakness for military men?