Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mata Hari

The Courtesan

Mata Hari, approximately 1906
Mata Hari, approximately 1906

The professional life of a dancer, like that of an athlete, is generally short. Mata Hari was no exception to this rule. She had begun her career when she was close to 30, much later than most dancers do. Over a few years' time, the muscles of her body started losing their tone, she put on weight as people usually do as they age and the metabolism slows down, and her act simply lost its freshness. Many of her imitators were younger and prettier and quite a few were better dancers. Her heyday lasted from 1905 to 1912. As she approached 40, Mata Hari's support increasingly came from being a courtesan rather than a dancer.

Mata Hari developed intricate, affectionate and sometimes exclusive relationships with the men who supported her in elegant style. She appears to have been quite expert in the art of pleasuring men. Interestingly, even when she was making love, she did not strip completely naked; her breast cups stayed in place. Always painfully self-conscious about the smallness of her bosom, the imaginative woman came up with an explanation for this eccentricity that was designed to tug at her partners' heartstrings. She told them, in one of his fits of brutality, her former husband had bitten off both of her nipples!

Rudolph MacLeod with daughter Non
Rudolph MacLeod with
daughter Non

While she lived with a succession of well-off men, she also made several fruitless attempts to contact her daughter Non. Her letters were returned unopened by Rudolph MacLeod. Mata Hari ached for a relationship with her only remaining child. Since the girl's father refused to allow them to have one through the mail, the desperate mother hatched a plan to kidnap Non, who was then thirteen.

Mata Hari had a servant named Anna Lintjens to whom the dancer was unusually close. It is likely the two were bonded by their sense of being "fallen women" according to the morals of the times. Anna had borne a child out of wedlock when she was young and been considered unmarriageable as a result. Mata Hari asked Anna to travel to Velp, the city where Rudolph and Non MacLeod were then living, and take Anna as the girl left school for the day. Then Anna and her young charge were to grab a taxi to Amsterdam and board a train to Paris.

The loyal Anna went to Non's school and waited for her. The bell rang but Anna and her employer's plans were foiled because Rudolph came to the school to meet his daughter. Anna made a last attempt to get to the daughter by telling Mr. MacLeod that she, Anna, had a gift from Paris for the young girl. Rudolph brusquely ordered her away. Anna returned to Paris and a bitterly disappointed Mata Hari.

Portrait of Mata Hari by Frantz-Namur
Portrait of Mata Hari by Frantz-

Mata Hari also tried to keep a toehold in the world of public entertainment. On May 23, 1914, she appeared in a music hall in Germany. Some spectators thought the show "indecent" and complained to the cops. A police officer named Griebel decided to see for himself. He was bewitched by Mata Hari's performance and made a date with her.

In some accounts, Griebel is out of the picture and his superior, Traugott von Jagow, became Mata Hari's boyfriend. Those accounts also say von Jagow was in charge of German espionage and gave her orders to spy on France.

Some, including biographer Erika Ostrovsky, believe that Mata Hari went to a German "spy school" located in Antwerp, Belgium. The notorious academy of espionage was run by a woman named Elsbeth Schragmüller and referred to as Fräulein Doktor by the Allied forces. Plump and physically unprepossessing, she was known for her iron will and an extraordinary energy and stamina that allowed her to work twenty hours straight. The stern discipline she demanded led to her being nicknamed "The Red Tiger" and "Tiger Eyes."

Those who believe Mata Hari was guilty as charged think that this spy academy gave her the code name "H 21" and that she spent fifteen weeks learning espionage at the school. The subjects gone over, according to Ostrovsky, included "codes, ciphers, communicative dodges, the study of chemicals (their use and manufacture), memorization of maps, charts, and photographs, as well as models of enemy arms (always in the process of revision and elaboration)." They were also sternly warned of the fate of "fool-spies," those who go over to the other side and are dealt with ruthlessly.

It is also quite possible that Mata Hari never set foot in this famous German spy school. She always claimed she did not and several careful biographers believed her.

At any rate, the situation between France and Germany was heating up and Mata Hari wished to depart from Germany, which she did two days after the war broke out on August 4, 1914. She would later claim that she hastily departed the country because the police were treating foreigners badly and the years she had spent in Paris meant to Germans that she should be considered French.

She got into Switzerland, was sent back to Germany because of a snafu involving passports, and ended up in Amsterdam while the First World War was getting underway. She did more traveling, to Paris and back to Holland and back to Paris again.

Paris was now the capital of a country at war and, thus, deeply concerned about its security. Many people were concerned about the spies within their midst and there were suspicions that Mata Hari, who had so recently had a German lover, might be spying for that country. She became annoyed and angered to realize that men were tailing her movements.

Portrait of Mata Hari by Piet van der Hem
Portrait of Mata Hari by Piet van
der Hem

Paris has long been regarded as a city conducive to romance so it is perhaps appropriate that Mata Hari met the love of her life there. He was a Russian officer named Vladmir Masloff. Usually called "Vadim," he was only 21 when he met the 40-year-old Mata Hari. Dark-haired and long-nosed, he was a slender, handsome fellow who, as Howe rightly notes, looked like the young Dustin Hoffman. A passionate May-December romance blossomed. Vadim was about the age Mata Hari's son would have been had he lived and that is likely to have played a role in the affection that developed on her side. Vadim may have felt the attraction to a woman of about his mother's vintage that young males often experience and his ego may have been stroked by being the lover of a famous female who was desired by so many rich and powerful men.

Their love affair was interrupted when Masloff was ordered back to the Front. There he suffered an injury, losing the sight in his left eye as a result of being gassed by the Germans. He wore a patch over his eye thereafter.

Mata Hari was deeply traumatized when she learned that the man she loved had been wounded. However, their mutual love was as strong as ever if not stronger. There was always something of the maternal in Mata Hari's feeling for young Vadim and the fact that he was disabled must have intensified this emotion. For his part, Vadim, who believed that the older woman had her nipples bitten off, may have now felt the two of them had more in common since they were, in his mind, both wounded.

Vadim was in danger of losing the sight in his other eye as well. Mata Hari determined that she would have to find the funds to support both of them and re-doubled her efforts as a courtesan.

The young Russian was recuperating in a military hospital near Vittel, a place officially in the war zone so civilians required special permission to travel there. It was while seeking that permission that Mata Hari would meet Georges Ladoux, a man instrumental in her undoing.

Georges Ladoux was an army captain in charge of organizing French counterespionage. He was a plump, square-faced man given to smoking a pipe and slicking his dark hair back with shiny oils.

Mata Hari had been having trouble getting permission to visit Vittel because of the suspicion that she was a German spy. Friends recommended that she look up Georges Ladoux and plead her case with him. She did so and he questioned her extensively about where she stood regarding the conflict between France and Germany. She replied that as a Dutch citizen, she was neutral since, after all, Holland was not a belligerent, but she assured him that her sympathies were with France. Then he asked her if she would consider spying on the Germans for the French. She did not answer immediately and Ladoux told her to think it over. He could wait. He also told her he would approve the visit to Vittel.

Spying was dangerous. But it could also be highly remunerative and Mata Hari and Vadim badly needed money if they were going to be able to live in the style to which Mata Hari was accustomed. This would be especially true if she was to, in her words, avoid "deceiving him with other men." She decided to go for it. She did not plan to be at it for long. Rather, she would bring off "one big coup," collect a fortune from her grateful French superiors, then marry her beloved Vadim and live happily ever after.

Ladoux worked out a plan for Mata Hari to do some spying in Brussels. Mata Hari had known a businessman in that city named Wurfbein whose company provided food supplied to the German army. Wurfbein had promised to introduce Mata Hari to General Moritz Ferdinand von Bissing, who oversaw the German occupation of Belgium, the next time she was in Brussels. She would take Wurfbein up on the offer and then seduce von Bissing. The courtesan was sure she could get the general to spill military secrets while making pillow talk. Furthermore, she hoped that she could use him to renew an old affair she had had with the Crown Prince of Germany.

The war necessitated that Mata Hari employ a circuitous route to Brussels: she would go to Spain, then Britain, then her homeland of Holland, and finally Belgium.

Things started to go bad for her in Britain. The British strongly suspected Mata Hari of working for the Germans. Moreover, they were looking for a woman named Clara Benedix who was indubitably a German spy and bore something of a resemblance to Mata Hari. Deciding that "Clara Benedix," like "Mata Hari," was an alias for Margaretha Zelle, they entered the boat she was on as soon as it docked and arrested her.

The startled Mata Hari was taken to Scotland Yard for questioning. She insisted that she was not Clara Benedix and that a terrible mistake had been made.

Authorities in Britain wrote to France's Georges Ladoux, who told them to return her to Spain, so back to Spain a frustrated and angered Mata Hari went. As Howe writes about her situation, "She was without instructions, needing money, and unable to get to Holland and Belgium and von Bissing."

It was December of 1916. According to some accounts, those that believe she was a German agent to begin with, she saw her controller from that country, Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, while she was in Madrid. Other writers believe the two never met.

She indisputably met and had a romance with German Major Arnold Kalle. During their time together, she attempted to extract information from him that would benefit her French spymasters and, she hoped, lead to a generous payoff for her. Kalle told her that he was "trying to arrange for a submarine to drop off some German and Turkish officers in the French zone of Morocco."

Mata Hari left his bed believing that she had picked up an important secret. The excited spy (she had just done her first spying according to many writers) wrote to Ladoux with the submarine news. In fact, it was something already well known to French counterespionage. A rightly suspicious Kalle had fed her a story he knew was stale and waited to see if she would relay it. For her part, Mata Hari pretended to give Kalle important knowledge about French secrets. Among other items, she told him that the French resented Britain's direction of the Allied war effort and that the Allies were planning to launch an offensive in the spring. All the confidential "news" she related was swirling through France as gossip or had been in French newspapers.

On their next romantic rendezvous, Mata Hari again tried to spy for the French. Kalle appeared to be on to her. Angrily he told her that he knew she had passed on the information about the submarine to the French. He knew this, he claimed, because the Germans had "the key to their radio cipher." This was unlikely. While he had previously given her stale information, he then fed the naïve and inexperienced spy false information.

It was time to go back to Paris, Mata Hari believed, to reap the reward the French would surely give her for her achievements in espionage. Once back there, she tried to see Ladoux, her superior, but he was reluctant to admit her. When he finally did, he refused to pay her, saying that her information was without value and that she would have to do much better to earn money from French intelligence. Mata Hari was down but not out. She thought she could see and seduce someone much higher up the German echelon than Kalle and make the fortune she needed to support herself and Vadim, her future husband.

She waited in vain for another assignment.

Ladoux and his colleagues were ruminating over coded messages sent from Kalle to his colleagues in Berlin and back again that French counterespionage had intercepted. One such message read as follows.

"H 21 informs us: Princess George of Greece, Marie Bonaparte, is using her 'intimate relations' with Briand [Aristide Briand, then prime minister of France] to get French support for her husband's access to the Greek throne.

She says Briand's enemies would welcome further defeats in the war to overthrow him.

Britain has political and military control of France. French are afraid to speak up. General offensive planned for next spring."

The French were unlikely to be upset by the content of the message since it was the stuff of common gossip and easy surmise. It was the fact that Mata Hari appeared to already possess a code name recognizable by the Germans that set off an alarm. On the surface, at least, it indicated that she had started work for Germany prior to agreeing to spy for France.

To understand the central issue of Mata Hari's guilt, it is necessary to be aware of a vital fact: the Germans were relaying information about her in a code that they knew the French had already broken. Thus, Germany intended that the French read these messages. Their motive may have been to lure France into killing on of its own agents or it may have been because she was truly a double agent operating for France after agreeing to spy for Germany and had been designated an expendable "fool-spy" by the Germans. In either case, it is safe to say that the Germans wanted her out of the way and wished the French to do the actual dirty work.

French intelligence was under a great deal of pressure to catch the spies in their midst. These communications made Mata Hari a temptingly easy mark.

Last photo of Mata Hari before her arrest
Last photo of Mata Hari before
her arrest

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