On this day in 1917, the exotic dancer known as Mata Hari was sentenced to death in France for spying for Germany during World War I.
Born in the Netherlands, Gertruida Margueretha Zelle moved to Paris in 1903 and began performing as a dancer under the name Mata Hari. She claimed to be a princess from Java trained in the art of sacred Indian dance. Her claims were taken at face value and her exotic dancing became very popular across Europe. The images here captures her at the height of her fame.
Mata Hari became a famous courtesan before the outbreak of the First World War, becoming involved with military officers and politicians in France and Germany. In January 1917, French intelligence agents intercepted radio messages from the German military attaché in Madrid that described the activities of a German spy, whom the French identified as Mata Hari. Although the circumstances of the alleged espionage were unclear, and neither French nor British intelligence could produce definite evidence against her, Mata Hari was arrested in Paris in February 1917.
Questioned by French military intelligence, Mata Hari admitted giving information to a German intelligence official. However, she claimed that the information was outdated and that she had acted as a double agent on behalf of the French. Nevertheless, she was tried in a military court and sentenced to execution by firing squad on July 25, 1917. She was executed on October 15 of that year at the age of 41. While her effectiveness as a spy remains in question, her story captured the popular imagination, inspiring countless authors and filmmakers.
Search the Artstor Digital Library for Mata Hari to see a full set of suitably exotic photographs from the Musée Guimet in Paris, courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux and Art Resource.