Today on October 15, 1917, Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad on charges of espionage.
Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, better known by her stage name “Mata Hari”, was a famous exotic dancer and mistress of the early 1900s. Born in the Netherlands, she later moved to Paris where she took the city by storm, becoming a well-known figure among many top saloons. At the turn of the century, Oriental culture had become trendy throughout Paris so her exotic look certainly catered to that fad. She soon began touring all across Europe, telling the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess. Her stage name, Mata Hari, means “eye of the day” in the Indonesian dialect.
By the start of WWI, Mata was approaching forty years old and her dancing days were certainly behind her. In 1916, she was hired by an French Army captain to spy for him during the war. He assumed her courtesan contacts would be useful for French intelligence programs. Mata planned to seduce high ranking German officials to gather important information, however, she never actually made it that far. On one of her first missions, she met with a contact working for the German ambassador. She began sharing bits of gossip with him in the hopes that he would return the favor. After their meeting, he ended up naming her as a German spy in his communication notes back to Berlin. French authorities quickly intercepted his message and moved to arrest Mata on charges of being a double agent.
In February 1917, she was imprisoned at the St. Lazare Penitentiary in Paris. After lengthy interrogations, Mata was convicted and found guilty of causing thousands of soldier fatalities. Her accusers blamed her for sharing details of the Allies’ newest weapon - the tank. Mata was brought to Vincennes (outside of Paris) to face the capital punishment. She refused a customary blindfold and was executed by firing squad. Some historians believe the German captain purposely set her up, as he likely knew his messages were being read. The French Government reportedly used this high-profile and very public trial as a scapegoat, or distraction, from the mounting losses of the war.