Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mata Hari

The Story of Mata Hari: Introduction

The very name of Mata Hari has become synonymous with spying, espionage, intrigue, and sensuality.

The woman who adopted this name was born Margaretha Zelle on August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. She was the second child of Adam Zelle and his wife Antje van der Meulen and was the only girl in a family of four boys. M'greet was the nickname her family gave her.

In a family and society known for fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed folk, the pretty M'greet was noticeable for her thick black hair, black eyes, and easily tanned olive complexion. Neighbors thought she had either Jewish or Javanese blood. The latter was suggested because Java was a part of the Dutch East Indies.

Adam Zelle
Adam Zelle

Adam Zelle had a successful hat business in an era when virtually no man would be seen in public without a hat. He kept his family in comfortable circumstances and seemed to especially enjoy indulging his vivacious and lovely daughter. She would someday recall that her father seemed to regard her as "an orchid among buttercups."

For her sixth birthday, her father gave her a most special present: a miniature carriage to which two goats were harnessed. Manually skilled, Papa Zelle had made the carriage, which would seat four passengers. Young M'greet knew how to drive a carriage because she had often taken the reins of her father's jitney so she was delighted to show off her present and pick up her friends in it.

A young Margaretha Zelle
A young Margaretha

In many ways, M'greet showed a flair for the dramatic early on. She loved wearing flamboyant clothes to school and regaling pals with stories of her exalted origins. "I was born of illustrious ancestors," she would claim. "My cradle stood in Caminghastate." The Caminghastate was a mansion in Leeuwarden in which an authentically noble family resided. M'greet sometimes told them she lived in a castle. Although her friends suspected her stories were fantasy, she was still a popular person. Teachers liked her too for M'greet was a bright child who showed herself especially quick with languages.

Disaster struck the family when M'greet was thirteen years old. Adam Zelle went bankrupt as a result of a series of misguided speculations on the stock market. After selling off their nice furniture, the family moved from its spacious home in one of the better parts of the city to a tiny, shabby house in a poor section. Adam told them he was going to Amsterdam to try his luck there and left Antje to look after four children by herself.

Antje was not up to the task. She soon became deeply depressed, then physically ill. She died when M'greet was fifteen years old. Although she was a "daddy's girl," M'greet had also been quite close to her mother and took her death very hard.

Adam Zelle came home for the funeral but did not repossess his young. Instead, he distributed them among those relatives who could be persuaded to take in an impoverished and orphaned young person. M'greet went to her godfather's house in the small town of Sneek. By this time, M'greet had attained her full height of five-feet-ten inches tall and towered over other females. Indeed, she was taller than the average Dutch man at the time and this was considered a distinct disadvantage in gaining suitors.

The godfather, Heer Visser, suggested that M'greet try to get training as a kindergarten teacher. M'greet took the hint. She knew she was not really wanted in the Visser household and did not enjoy being the object of dutiful charity. She was soon on her way to the town of Leyde to a school for future teachers run by Heer Wybrandus Haanstra.

The school emphasized that teachers were to be disciplinarians with their small, rambunctious charges. The softhearted M'greet did not like to bring switches down on the palms of little kids and was thought unsuited for the work for which she was training.

She had another major problem and that was the proprietor of the place, fat Heer Wybrandus Haanstra. He was infatuated with M'greet and the lonely girl appeared to reciprocate his feelings, at least partially. Their romance caused public consternation that erupted into a scandal. Ironically, the focus of disapproval was not the older male who made advances but the relatively powerless female who was the object of them. Thus, M'greet was forced to leave the school in disgrace.

The bewildered M'greet sought refuge with her uncle, Heer Taconis, in The Hague. In Heer Taconis' home she did domestic chores and ran errands and generally tried to make herself useful for the family that had been good enough to take her in. She was soon eighteen and thinking of matrimony.

By the general cultural perception, she had two major disadvantages in attracting men. The first was her height since some people consider it unattractive or funny looking for the female half of a heterosexual couple to tower over the male. The second was that she had very small breasts in a culture that idealized the hourglass figure. She learned to disguise her mammary shortcomings by putting stockings into the fronts of her undergarments. However, M'greet was unquestionably pretty, had a certain exotic look about her, possessed grace and style and so was found attractive by many males.


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