Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mata Hari

Arrested, Tried, Condemned

On February 13, 1917, the French arrested Mata Hari for espionage.

She was interrogated many times by Captain Pierre Bouchardon, a thin, beady-eyed military prosecutor who habitually bit his fingernails. To him, she gave a fairly truthful account of her background rather than the exotic claptrap she fed her audiences. She often shaved facts here and there to make her history seem a tad more "respectable" and got dates and similar details wrong. She categorically denied being a double agent. "I am innocent," she stated firmly. "Someone is playing with me French counter-espionage, since I am in its service, and I have acted only on its instructions."

She was held in Saint-Lazare prison while awaiting trial and interrogated by Bouchardon no less than seventeen times before facing an actual military jury. The prison had no baths so the only way she could clean herself was in a small bowl that was sometimes brought to her cell. The institution itself was generally filthy, something that greatly distressed the fastidious Mata Hari. She was isolated from other prisoners. This may have been for her own protection since her fellow inmates may well have wanted to exact their own justice upon a German spy but it grated on the sensibilities of the extroverted suspect. Since her arrest was kept secret from the public, she was not allowed to write to Vadim. She was permitted no clean changes of clothing and allowed only 15 minutes a day for solitary exercise outside of her cell.

In between their face-to-face interrogations, Mata Hari wrote to Bouchardon protesting her innocence and protesting against the severe conditions of her confinement. In one such missive she wrote, "You have made me suffer too much. I am completely mad. I beg of you, put an end to this. I am a woman. I cannot support [what is] above my strength." In another she pleaded, "I beg of you, stop making me suffer in this prison. I am so weakened by this system and the cell is driving me mad. I have not done any espionage in France ... Let me have provisional liberty. Don't torture me here."

She wrote in vain.

There was one visitor allowed to her who came to see Mata Hari almost daily. He was her attorney, Edouard Clunet. The 74-year old lawyer had once been a lover of Mata Hari and continued to have warm feelings for her. He had handled legal matters for the dancer and professional mistress for over a decade. However, he was a poor choice to handle an espionage case. Although his mental faculties remained sharp in his seventh decade, his specialty was international corporate law an area in which he was considered the greatest expert in the country and he was out of practice in actually pleading in court.

While Mata Hari's arrest was kept secret during several months of her detention, it was announced to the public just before the beginning of her trial at the Palace of Justice on July 24, 1917. An enormous crowd wanted to see the famous sex symbol during this time of disaster. They thronged into the great antechamber and spilled out into the street.

The dusky-skinned, dark-haired, and overweight defendant had taken care with her appearance on this day, wearing a lovely blue dress and a hat with a delicate, diaphanous lace mantilla sweeping across her face and flowing down her shoulders. Despite the summer heat, she wore gloves on her hands and folded them into a large fur muff.

Chief prosecuting attorney was André Mornet, a lieutenant in the French army. The case had been transferred from Bouchardon to him sometime before the trial began. Mornet was a slender fellow who sported a very full mustache and beard.

Presiding over the trial was Lieutenant-Colonel Albert-Ernest Somprou. The six "assessors" of the military court who would decide the fate of the defendant were all career officers approaching or beyond middle age.

The first request of the prosecutor was to hold the trial "in camera" (in secret) and to seal the records for the good of national security. Somprou granted the motion and the huge crowd was shooed out of the courtroom.

Mornet carefully outlined the case against the accused. She had been under suspicion and under surveillance since shortly after she arrived in Paris in May 1916. He emphasized that those who patronized this harlot were overwhelmingly military officers, hoping to implant the notion that Mata Hari's interest was far more sinister than that of a sensuous woman with a thing for men in uniform.

Radio messages from the German military in Madrid to Berlin had been intercepted, Mornet told the jury. These identified Mata Hari as Agent H 21 of the Cologne intelligence center. Getting rather carried away with his own rhetoric, Mornet called the defendant "a sort of Messalina, dragging a horde of admirers behind her chariot."

Five witnesses were called to confirm what the prosecutor had said in his opening. Under the military trial rules of the time, Clunet could not cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. Even more damaging, the defense could not even directly question its own witnesses!

However, a defense witness did appear to praise the accused. Henry "Robert" de Marguérie was a high-ranking official in the foreign ministry. He had known the defendant for fourteen years and been a lover of hers. He had visited her shortly after returning to Paris from fighting in the war and they had not talked about the conflict at all.

Mornet found this hard to believe and pressed the witness. "Are you asking us to accept, sir," the prosecutor began incredulously, "that you spent three days constantly in each other's company and not a word escaped your lips of the question which obsesses us all, the war?"

De Marguérie's answer was immediate and unequivocal. "I am a very busy man," he said, "and I am obsessed with the war night and day. For just that reason, it was a great relief to spend three days talking of philosophy, Indian art, and love. It may seem unlikely to you but it is the truth." Without being asked, he volunteered, "Nothing has ever spoiled the good opinion that I have of this lady."

Before leaving the courtroom, de Marguérie ostentatiously bowed to Mata Hari.

To an extraordinary extent, the hands of the defense were simply tied. Thus, it is not that surprising that the military court ended up finding her guilty. Their sentence was harsh but not unexpected to one convicted of spying for an enemy nation: "The Council unanimously condemns the named person, Zelle, Marguérite, Gertrude, as mentioned above, to the punishment of death." She was also required to pay court costs.

Mata Hari appeared to be in shock when she heard the sentence. She stared straight ahead as if transfixed. Edouard Clunet wept beside her.

Mugshot of Mata Hari
Mugshot of Mata Hari

During the remaining months of her incarceration, Mata Hari was alternately hopeful of a last-minute reprieve and utterly depressed. She continued to gain weight from the starchy prison food and the enforced lack of exercise. The last photographs taken of her show a woman still attractive if plump but weary, anxious, and sad.

The end came for Mata Hari early in the morning of October 15, 1917. She had not been informed in advance of the date of her execution because, when France had the death penalty, it was considered more humane for the condemned to not know the precise date.

It was also customary for the party of officers to make as much noise as possible when coming to get the condemned, so the sleeping prisoner will have woken before they got to his or her cell and be a tiny bit easier to deal with.

Captain Bouchardon had the task of leading the grim group to Mata Hari's cell. Even after the deliberately violent stomping of their feet down the corridor, they found the convicted spy sound asleep because a doctor had given her an extra dose of the sedative she needed to sleep on the previous night.

As Mata Hari stirred and blinked at the group that had intruded into her cell, Bouchardon firmly announced, "Have courage! Your request for clemency has been rejected by the President of the Republic. The time for expiation has come."

"It's not possible!" Mata Hari shouted. "It's not possible!"

Two kindly nuns who had come to be fond of the prisoner in her months of incarceration attempted to comfort the distraught woman. She composed herself and told a nun, "Don't be afraid, sister. I shall know how to die."

Indeed she did. Mata Hari faced death bravely, walking with her head high and refusing the customary offer of a blindfold. The prisoner saw twelve rifles pointing at her. She blew a kiss at her killers. The order was given, the shots rang out, and she was dead. A bullet had found her heart. Although it was unnecessary, custom demanded that a French officer administer the final coup de grace so one did, emptying his gun into her ear.

Mata Hari's execution
Mata Hari's execution

No one claimed her body so her corpse was taken to a medical school to be used by students there for study on the dissecting table.

By a strange and melancholy coincidence, Mata Hari's daughter Non, who had grown up without her mother but strongly resembled her physically, would die young and suddenly. At the age of twenty-one, she planned to go to the Dutch East Indies where she would be a teacher. She died in her sleep on the night before the planned voyage, probably of a stroke.

In the years following Mata Hari's death, the dancer-turned-courtesan and just barely turned-spy became a legend. She has been portrayed onscreen by Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia Kristel, and Jeanne Moreau. Some, usually the uninformed, take seriously the prosecutor's flamboyant description of her as "the greatest woman spy."

However, Mata Hari's career as a spy was short-lived and unproductive. Whether or not she was ever the double agent she was thought to be is highly debatable. Her execution by the French may well have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Yet she is one of the most famous spies in history, largely because she was already famous as an entertainer before she entered the shadowy world of espionage. However, her true talents, for which she was justly famous, were not in espionage but in exotic dancing and pleasing men.

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