Mata Hari, Sinister Salome?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Before we start the podcast, I thought we should probably talk about tonight's plans. Tonight, I dine with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B. If I don't have to dance, I make a trip with Marquis C. I avoid serious liaisons. I satisfy all my caprices.

Sarah Dowdey: Katie, that doesn't really sound that much like you. It sounds a lot like Mata Hari though. Are you sure you're not confusing your lives.

Katie Lambert: Ding, ding, ding! She's out subject for today. Mata Hari was an exotic dancer, and we do mean exotic, and a courtesan, but we know her best for her reputation as a glamorous, beautiful spy ensnaring high-powered military men with her charms and her talents. Who was this sinister Salome, as the newspapers called her, and what exactly was she guilty of?

Sarah Dowdey: Unsurprisingly, her birth name was not Mata Hari.

Katie Lambert: I'm so surprised.

Sarah Dowdey: It was Margareetha Geertruida Zelle, and she entered the world in the Netherlands on August 7th, 1876. She was the spoiled little princess daughter of a hatter, incredibly spoiled.

Katie Lambert: I don't know what you're talking about, Sarah, because I too had my own fayotin drawn by goats when I was a child, so perhaps yours was just a little deprived.

Sarah Dowdey: Maybe you both just had princess-like childhoods, but she was abandoned in her teens when her father goes bankrupt and her mother dies. From that point on, she has an affair with the headmaster.

Katie Lambert: Baby's first scandal.

Sarah Dowdey: Her first entry into this scandalous world. She was looking for a way out of the Netherlands, and she found it.

Katie Lambert: In a guy who she met through his personal ad, Captain Rudolf MacLeod of the Dutch colonial army. They were engaged in six days and married in 1895. The bride wore yellow. According to one article I read, he was extravagantly mustachioed. He was also older, a drinker, a gambler, and a jealous man.

Sarah Dowdey: So in short, a Darnley. He beat her, and threatened her with guns and swords, and he verbally abused her, describing her as the scum of the lowest kind. He also had syphilis, which he called diabetes.

Katie Lambert: Not the same thing.

Sarah Dowdey: Glossing over that. She wasn't a great wife though. She said that she had inclinations that made it "impossible for a woman like me to be a good housewife." It's also probably that she was sleeping around with other military men that he knew. Married life was definitely not for her.

Katie Lambert: It wasn't for him either. He kept up his womanizing. He just expected her to stay home and not do the same. She had two children with MacLeod, a boy and a girl. Tragically, both children became very, very ill, and her son died at age 2. It's possible the she had contracted syphilis from her husband and passed it on to their children. Maybe they sickened due to a doctor's attempt to cure the infection with mercy. Other rumors were that they were poisoned by a nanny or servant, and her husband that she might have done it and admitted that he wanted to kill her.

Sarah Dowdey: So their marriage deteriorates. As it becomes more violent and more unhappy, they return to the Netherlands and separate, and he leaves her penniless, and she gives him custody of their daughter. What's she going to do? She doesn't have any money. She doesn't' have a job, so she goes to Pari s and finds a way to survive, acting as a nude artist model, being a circus rider, and acting as prostitute.

Katie Lambert: Then she began dancing, first in private homes, and then in public. Lady MacLeod, the name she went by then, was 5'10" and gorgeous with olive skin, dark hair and eyes. She looked a bit exotic, so she concocted a style of dance to match it, which was vaguely reminiscent of Javanese dance from her life there with the captain, and definitely sexy. She called these dances sacred dances, and they tied together religion, art, and nudity. You wish, Lady Gaga. There were lots of religious statues and veils, mainly veils dropping to the floor as she became more and more nude and writhed around in front of figurines of someone's [inaudible]. Classy! Classy!

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. In the early 1900s, she emerges as Mata Hari, which means "the eye of the day." In this beaded metal brassier with a tiger-like - or sometimes people describe it as serpent-like - moves that she'd show off with.

Katie Lambert: Yes. This belly dancer would like to see these moves. Reading accounts from the papers at the time is hilarious because they're just falling all over themselves to try to find words to describe just how sexy she is without actually staying that.

Sarah Dowdey: Still being able to print it, oh yes.

Katie Lambert: She's tiger-like and talking about her serpentine moves, and how she does a simple dance where she becomes more and more simple - meaning she drops more and more veils until there's not a whole lot left.

Sarah Dowdey: Her dance may be simple, but her life definitely isn't. Her back story isn't. It's this elaborate made-up story. She talks about how her mother was an Indian princess and how she sneaked into Hindu temples to learn the dances of worshippers, just this off-the-wall stuff.

Katie Lambert: So she's this beautiful, lying, naked woman, and was a smash hit in Paris - more exciting than the Moulin Rouge. Colette went to see her dance, a detail I liked. Her newfound fame brought her many new lovers. She did love her military men. She said once, "I have never loved any but officers." Things that Mata Hari loves include making up stories, dancing, being naked, and having sex with military men.

Sarah Dowdey: But we cannot leave one thing off the list. That's spending money. She's very extravagant, and that's how she eventually ends up at the Foley Berger, which is a downgrade compared to where she was performing before.

Katie Lambert: So how did she end up shot by a firing squad on espionage charges? Was she bedding these military officers for nefarious purposes?

Sarah Dowdey: I bet you didn't see that one coming. That's our big shocker.

Katie Lambert: The answer to that depends on who you ask. The curator of the Mata Hari exhibit at the Fries museum, Evert Kramer, says she's definitely guilty, that she definitely offered to spy for the Germans, and she offered to spy several times for the French.

Sarah Dowdey: But the historian, Leon Sherman, and the biographer, Pat Shipman maintain that her trial and execution was more about scapegoat, that she might've been a double agent, but she was an incredibly inept one. She just wanted money that she was offered. She didn't actually really pay attention to the idea of the assignment.

Katie Lambert: So now that we've mentioned two possible judgments, we're going to give you the story. She was in Germany dancing at the Metropol when World War I broke out. She was Dutch, the Netherlands being neutral, but she spent so much time in France that the Germans considered her a French citizen. They took everything she owned expect for the clothes she was wearing, and sent her out of town on a train.

Sarah Dowdey: Presumably a scanty outfit, I would imagine, too.

Katie Lambert: Perhaps an elegant suit.

Sarah Dowdey: So she makes her way to Amsterdam, and it's there that she possibly began her downfall. She wanted restitution for the things that had been taken from her, and the German consulate wouldn't give it to her, but they did offer her another deal. That was money in exchange for spy work, so she takes them money, but did she take the job? This is the big question about Mata Hari. Did she do the work?

Katie Lambert: She did get assigned a code name: H21, which is not nearly as good as Mata Hari, but everything else during this period is very muddled. Some accounts have her betraying both the Germans and the French, working for both and screwing them both over. One account says she admitted to giving the Germans information, but outdated information, so not so bad. Please don't execute me. Another one says she came into contact with French intelligence while she was trying to make her way to a lover in Fitel. They later sent her to Belgium on a mission, but she couldn't get there. Instead, she got together with a German captain how told her German secrets, according to her account. According to French intelligence, she was passing French secrets on to the Germans. Of course, you could look at it ether way because none of us were there.

Sarah Dowdey: Another says that French intelligence actually came to her asking her to spy to prove that she wasn't spying for Germany. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but basically, if you'll do this work for us, we'll know you're oaky. She takes money for clothes, and maybe again didn't perform her duties.

Katie Lambert: So we have no idea what actually happened during his time period, or we have little bits and pieces, but they don't even come together to form a cohesive picture of what happened. Trust me. I've read account after account after account. But she definitely had contact with German and French officers, and with French and German intelligence. It's simply uncertain what the extent of that contact was. Was it just sex and money, or secrets, or some delicious combination of the three? Whether she did it or not, it's certainly true that her reputation as a spendthrift, sexually promiscuous woman colored people's perceptions of her, and worked against her during her trial.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. The British were very against Mata Hari. For example, they stopped her on one of her trips and searched her. Despite not finding anything, they still declared her a person of suspicion. She was attractive and multilingual. She's this beautiful woman traveling alone, and they described her as bold, which is probably a codeword for her sex life. You can just imagine her in a movie, somebody who just seems suspicious.

Katie Lambert: You can see her in that glamour depiction in the movies, but in real life, she sounds pretty terrible.

Sarah Dowdey: We were talking about this before the podcast. She sounds like she would be an absolute pain if you were actually there talking to her.

Katie Lambert: But she's so fascinating. She was arrested February 13th, 1917, and she's said to have handed out chocolates to her arrestors. She was tried in a military court, which some called a kangaroo court, July 24th and 25th, and the French chief inquisitor said of her - just to give you an idea of what kind of trial this was - "Feline, supple, and artificial. You're used to gabling anything and everything without scruple, without pity. Always ready to divine fortunes, leaving her ruined lovers to blow their brains out. She was a born spy." While I don't see how any of those qualities add together to form a spy, perhaps I lack the inquisitor's imagination.

Sarah Dowdey: I think that would be the dialogue to open up the movie, too, maybe as she's riding the train. But she is convicted, and she's sentenced to die by firing squad. October 15th, 1917, she goes to face her death. She wears this nice gray suit and hat, and refused to be tied to the stake. She also refused a blindfold saying, "That won't be necessary," so she has a good death, considering.

Katie Lambert: Again, we come to our question. Was she a spy? It's been proposed that the French simply needed a scapegoat. The war was going badly. So many men are dying. Morale was very low. Here we have little miss sexy sex and her piles of money, which just didn't seem right to them. The papers were saying that she bathed in milk when French children didn't even have milk to drink, so you can see why she would be easy to hate.

Sarah Dowdey: And the money is being exchanged to buy things like clothes. That just makes it so much worse.

Katie Lambert: Instead of contributing to the war effort, right?

Sarah Dowdey: It's also been suggested that some of the documents used in her trial were altered by the French and - surprise twist - that the French head of intelligence may have been a German spy himself and was trying to deflect attention and distracting them with Mata Hari.Katie Lambert So is Mata Hari a victim, or was she really a criminal? Was she this cunning double-crosser and a femme fatale, or was she somebody who was convenient to blame, a woman who was easy to fear and easy to hate?

Sarah Dowdey: I'm more of the second opinion, to be honest. It doesn't really sound like she would be capable of the former.

Katie Lambert: She sounds a little dim to be executing really high-level double agent stuff.

Sarah Dowdey: Someone who cared much more about sex and money than she did about any sort of political ambitions. But we are uncertain, and we probably will be until the French declassify documents related to her case in 2017. We'll catch up with you in 2017.

Katie Lambert: In the meantime, we'll talk listener mail. Our first email is from Caroline, and she wrote, "I guess as a Canadian, I wasn't really the right audience for the Bombardment of Baltimore episode as I was rooting for the other guys. I'm a proud Haligonian living across the street from our beautiful citadel fort, which, by the way, would have been more than prepared for an American attack, not the cakewalk Jefferson imagined. "Also, General Robert Ross is buried about two blocks from my apartment in the city's oldest and prettiest cemetery. While he was killed in the States and was Scottish, and not from here, the tall tale I'm always heard was that Ross's body was shipped this far in a barrel of whisky, and intended to be put on a ship across the ocean, but there were delays, so they didn't bother and just drank the whisky and buried him here."

Sarah Dowdey: Bury the body, save the whisky. That's a good sentiment to have, I guess. Our second email is from Erin in Texas, and she wrote regarding the Bombardment of Baltimore podcast. In that podcast we talked a little bit about the Star-Spangled Banner and how little pieces of them had been snipped up and given off to people.

Katie Lambert: And cursed the family.

Sarah Dowdey: And the flag ends up cursing the family, everything. She wrote that she had a similarly historical flag in her own family. A few years ago, her parents were visiting her grandmother when her dad found what she calls a little piece of history tucked away in a family photo album. He finds two small squares of fabric, one red, one white. The following letter addressed to his grandmother's grandmother, and it's from December 21st, 1865. "Madame, I have presumed sufficiently upon my acquaintance with Mr. Andrews to send you, by him, a souvenir of the past, a piece of General R.E. Lee's battle flag. After the surrender had been determined upon, the officers of the general staff determined that the glorious old flag, which had floated into triumph over so many bloody fields should be desecrated by Yankee hands." The letter goes on like this, but once her dad realized the importance of what he had found, he and this writer's grandmother decided to send the pieces off to the Appomattox Courthouse national historic part so that it could be properly persevered, and so they could avoid a family flag feud of their own.

Katie Lambert: We loved both of these emails. If you'd like to email us, we're at We try to make it easy for you to keep in touch with us, so we're also on Twitter at MissedinHistory, and we have a Facebook fan page which we keep updated pretty much every day, so come check us out there, or look for some more history articles to read on our home page at

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the home page.