Biography of Mata Hari, Infamous World War I Spy

After her death, her name became synonymous with spying and espionage

Mata Hari
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Mata Hari (August 7, 1876–October 15, 1917) was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was arrested by the French and executed for espionage during World War I. After her death, her stage name "Mata Hari" became synonymous with spying and espionage.

Fast Facts: Mata Hari

  • Known For: Working as a spy for Germany during World War I
  • Also Known As: Margaretha Geertruida Zelle; Lady MacLeod
  • Born: August 7, 1876 in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands
  • Parents: Adam Zelle, Antje van der Meulen
  • Died: October 15, 1917 in Paris, France
  • Spouse: Rudolf "John" MacLeod (m. 1895—1906)
  • Children: Norman-John MacLeod, Louise Jeanne MacLeod
  • Notable Quote: "Death is nothing, nor life either, for that matter. To die, to sleep, to pass into nothingness, what does it matter? Everything is an illusion."

Early Life

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on August 7, 1876, as the first of four children.

Zelle's father was a hat maker by trade, but having invested well in oil, he had enough money to spoil his only daughter. At only 6 years old, Zelle became the talk of the town when she traveled in a goat-drawn carriage that her father had given her.

In school, Zelle was known to be flamboyant, often appearing in new, flashy dresses. However, Zelle's world changed drastically when her family went bankrupt in 1889 and her mother died two years later.

Family Breakup

After her mother's death, the Zelle family was split up and Zelle, now 15, was sent to Sneek to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser. Visser decided to send Zelle to a school that trained kindergarten teachers so that she'd have a career.

At the school, the headmaster Wybrandus Haanstra became enchanted by Zelle and pursued her. When a scandal broke out, Zelle was asked to leave the school, so she went to live with her uncle, Mr. Taconis, in The Hague.

Marriage and Divorce

In March 1895, while still staying with her uncle, 18-year-old Zelle became engaged to Rudolph "John" MacLeod after answering a personal ad in the newspaper. (The ad had been placed as a joke by MacLeod's friend.) MacLeod was a 38-year-old officer on home leave from the Dutch East Indies, where he had been stationed for 16 years. On July 11, 1895, the two were married.

They spent much of their married life living in the tropics of Indonesia where money was tight, isolation was difficult, and John's rudeness and Zelle's youth caused serious friction in their marriage. Zelle and John had two children together, Norman-John MacLeod and Louise Jeanne MacLeod. Both children became quite ill in June 1899. Norman-John died at age 2, but Louise Jeanne survived and lived until 1919. Zelle and John suspected the children may have been poisoned by a disgruntled servant.

In 1902, the couple moved back to The Netherlands and soon separated. Their divorce became final in 1906.

Off to Paris

Zelle decided to go to Paris for a new start. Without a husband, career, and money, Zelle used her experiences in Indonesia to create a new persona, one who donned jewels, smelled of perfume, spoke occasionally in Malay, danced seductively, and often wore very few clothes.

She made her dancing debut in a salon and instantaneously became a success. When reporters and others interviewed her, Zelle continually added to the mystique that surrounded her by spinning fantastic, fictionalized stories about her background, including being a Javanese princess and daughter of a baron.

To sound more exotic, she took the stage name "Mata Hari," Malayan for "eye of the day" (the sun).

Famous Dancer and Courtesan

Zelle became famous. All things "oriental" were in fashion in Paris, and Zelle's exotic looks added to her mystique.

Zelle danced at both private salons and later at large theaters. She danced at ballets and operas. She was invited to large parties and traveled extensively. She also took a number of lovers (often military men from various countries) who were willing to provide her financial support in exchange for her company.

Espionage, Capture, and Execution

Zelle was no longer a sleek dancer when in 1916 she started to spy for France during World War I. She was actually 40 years old at the time, and her time as a dancer was long behind her. She fell in love with a Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, who was sent to the front and became injured.

Zelle wanted to support him financially, so she accepted an offer to spy for France in mid-1916. France thought her courtesan contacts would be of use to its intelligence operation. She began to meet with German contacts. She provided the French with little useful information and may have begun to work for Germany as a double agent. The French eventually intercepted a German cable that named a spy code-named H-21, clearly a code name for Mata Hari.

The French became convinced that she was a spy and arrested her on Feb. 13, 1917. She was accused of spying for Germany, causing the deaths of at least 50,000 soldiers, and was put on trial in July 1917. After a short trial conducted in private in front of a military court, she was found guilty of spying for Germany and sentenced to death by firing squad. The French executed Zelle on Oct. 15, 1917. She was 41 years old.


During World War I, Zelle's frequent traveling across international borders and her varied companions caused several countries to wonder if she was a spy or even a double-agent. Many people who met her say that she was sociable but just not smart enough to pull off such a feat.

The notion that Zelle was an exotic dancer who used her powers of seduction to extract military secrets was false. She was years past her prime as a dancer by the time she agreed to serve as a spy for France—and possibly for Germany. Zelle maintained her innocence up until the time of her death.


  • Shipman, Pat. “Why Mata Hari Wasn't a Cunning Spy After All.” The History Behind the Killing of Mata Hari, 14 Oct. 2017.
  • Mata Hari.”, A&E Networks Television, 19 Apr. 2019.
  • "The Execution of Mata Hari, 1917."
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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Mata Hari, Infamous World War I Spy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Biography of Mata Hari, Infamous World War I Spy. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Mata Hari, Infamous World War I Spy." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).