French Arrest Mata Hari

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 267th installment in the series. 

February 13, 1917: French Arrest Mata Hari 

It’s strangely fitting that the most notorious spy of the First World War was probably guilty of nothing more than self-aggrandizement and bad judgment. 

The exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida in 1876, to a middle-class Dutch family with aspirations to social refinement; her father was a struggling hat-maker and her mother a low-ranking aristocrat with expensive tastes. Although citizens of the Netherlands their ancestry traced back to northern Germany, giving “Margreet” a cosmopolitan air, which was only reinforced by her dark features and “ethnic” appearance, fueling racist rumors of ancestors from India or Indonesia (echoing a scandalous allegation leveled at Britain’s former First Sea Lord and the inventor of the dreadnought, Jackie Fisher). 

Two years after her father declared bankruptcy, when Margreet was 15 her mother died and she was sent to live with her godfather. Noticing the effect her “exotic” appearance seemed to have on men, when she was 19 years old she responded to a newspaper personals ad placed by a Dutch colonial officer, Rudolf MacLeod, serving in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), seeking a wife. She moved to the Indies to be with MacLeod, married, and had two children by him, but tragically her older son was fatally poisoned, apparently by an angry servant.  

This tragedy spelled the end of their brief, tumultuous marriage, and following their return to Europe in 1901 Margreet left for Paris, where she parlayed her (mostly fictional) exotic background and appearance into a career as a dancer, supposedly performing the ritual dances of the libidinous Far East – naturally involving a good deal of nudity – under the name “Mata Hari,” translating as “Eye of the Day” in Malay. As expected of someone with such a scandalous occupation, she also worked as a high-class prostitute as she toured the capitals of Europe’s cosmopolitan pre-war social scene, notching up countless lovers, including assignations with many of the continent’s most famous and powerful men. 


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As it happened, May 1914 found Mata Hari in Berlin, where she had a brief affair with a German officer in the “morals” (vice) division. On the outbreak of war she tried to return to Paris, hoping to reconnect with old patrons there, arousing the suspicions of German officials who confiscated all her property, leaving her destitute. Undaunted as always, she managed to reestablish herself in the Netherlands as the mistress of a Dutch baron, and by December 1915 she was back in Paris, visiting all her old haunts and patrons. There she met and fell in love with a much younger Russian officer, the 21-year-old Vladimir de Masloff, who seemed to be equally infatuated with the aging dancer.

Fake Spy, Real Spy 

However Mata Hari was also already falling under suspicion from Allied intelligence agencies. The chief French counterintelligence officer, George Ladoux, believed (with no evidence beyond her amorous encounter with the German police officer) that she had accepted an offer from German intelligence to become a paid operative, using her liaisons with powerful men to gain access to key secrets, which she would pass back via unidentified handlers.

In fact, Mata Hari had been approached by a German agent in May 1916 in the Netherlands, and accepted an offer of 20,000 francs to work for Germany, along with a codename, “H21” – but all in bad faith, she would later insist, claiming she went along chiefly out of a desire to recoup the earlier loss of her property at the hands of German officials. Unfortunately for her, this misstep would come to light when France’s fortunes were at a particularly low ebb. 

The suspicion of Mata Hari was part of a new wave of spy mania that swept France in 1917, as politicians, the press, and government propaganda sought answers (or excuses) for the nation’s continuing inability to expel foreign invaders, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them – literally, in the case of the German Army’s impending strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Amid growing social unrest at home and mutinous rumblings at the front, the logical scapegoat was internal betrayal by people of dubious background, reviving the xenophobic and anti-Semitic themes of the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906.

The demonization also reflected a number of overlapping fears and insecurities resulting from social and cultural trends, which had gripped France and the rest of Europe by the third year of the war. These included widespread distrust of foreigners, including not just the enemy but also unreliable Allies and potentially treacherous neutrals, as well as unease over women’s growing economic power, and moral panic over the changing sexual mores of the younger generations (typified by parental concern about young women volunteering at hospitals where they could mix with men, and over young men at the front visiting prostitutes and contracting venereal disease). Deviant sex, espionage and blackmail were closely entwined in the popular imagination, thanks in part to the pre-war Redl affair and Caillaux affair

Although surveillance turned up nothing incriminating, Ladoux was so convinced that Mata Hari was a spy that he offered to make her a double agent in return for large sums of money, with a new mission of infiltrating Germany’s web of spies in France and abroad. Already under suspicion of being a German spy, in constant need of money, and with her lucrative dancing career mostly behind her, Mata Hari happily accepted the offer to become a real spy for France. 

Unfortunately for her this glamorous new career proved brief and fatal. On her first and only “mission” she traveled to Belgium and then Spain, and in November 1916 she continued her journey via Britain. When the ship put in at Cornwall, however, British agents arrested her on suspicion of being a spy and took her back to London. Here she told interrogators that she was indeed a spy – but one working for French counterintelligence. 

For some reason (perhaps excessive secrecy, or just fear of looking amateurish to his British colleagues) Ladoux now denied any connection with Mata Hari. Nevertheless the Brits, probably concluding that a washed-up exotic dancer was too implausible to be a real spy, released her and shipped her back to Spain. In December 1916, still hoping to prove her worth to Ladoux, she seduced the German military attaché in Madrid, Major Arnold Kalle, stringing him along with worthless gossip and made-up secrets about French politics, and eliciting what she believed were important military secrets in return. 

This piece of extracurricular espionage proved her undoing. The amateur spy failed to deduce that Kalle had realized exactly what she was up to, and was feeding her out-of-date and made-up information, deceiving her just as she believed she was deceiving him. When she passed these bogus “secrets” on to Ladoux, it only seemed to confirm that she was in fact a German double agent, as he’d originally suspected. Worse still, on December 13, 1916 French spies monitoring German radio traffic detected a secret transmission from Kalle to Berlin, in which he passed along secrets he attributed to her, using her codename “H21” – even though she claimed that she only received this codename recently. For this codename to already be known to Berlin, Ladoux concluded, she must have been in communication with German intelligence long before, and had therefore been hoodwinking the French all along.

However Ladoux failed to see that this was was all in fact an elaborate counterintelligence gambit perpetrated by Germany’s spymasters. The Germans were aware that the Allies had cracked this particular cipher, and were using it with the knowledge any messages they sent would be decoded, all in an attempt to sow confusion and hopefully trick the French into revealing some of their intelligence assets. Caught in the middle of this war of deceit was Mata Hari, a cheerful opportunist who now found herself far out of her depth.


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After she returned to France, on February 13, 1917, at Ladoux’s order French counterintelligence agents arrested Mata Hari as a German agent. Taken to military prison, she immediately denied the charges, writing, “I am innocent. Someone is fooling with me,” and blaming “French counterespionage, since I am in its service, and I have only acted on its instructions.” Nonetheless her notorious reputation, and her habit of embellishing or fictionalizing parts of her own past, effectively signed her death warrant: the French press and public were all too ready to believe that a foreign woman, famed for her loose morals and ability to seduce powerful men, had sold out the Republic, leading to the deaths of thousands of brave young Frenchmen. 

Mata Hari’s trial began on July 24, 1917, but with cards stacked against the 41-year old former exotic dancer, its outcome was never really in doubt. The prosecutors never presented any proof that she had actually been working for German intelligence, except for a mysterious receipt showing a payment of 5,000 francs, which it turned out was actually a gift from her old lover the baron (sent anonymously, of course, to protect his reputation). The court also prevented her defense lawyers from calling the baron or Mata Hari’s maid in the Netherlands to testify to clear up this apparently incriminating detail. 

The government did present evidence of her numerous encounters with French officers and officials – suggesting (but hardly proving) that she had extracted secrets from them; unsurprisingly, virtually none of her old lovers came forward to testify on her behalf, as this would have tarnished their reputation as well. Then the court heard of the ill-fated trip to Spain, the arrest by British intelligence in Cornwall, and the intercepted radio messages in a cracked cipher, which nobody knew had been sent on purpose to seal her doom. Most damning, Mata Hari herself admitted to receiving the codename “H21” earlier than she had previously stated, at the May 1916 meeting.

Duly convicted on eight charges of espionage, on October 15, 1917, “the greatest woman spy of the century,” who was in reality no such thing, was shot at 5 a.m. by a firing squad of twelve men at a barracks in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris. Her final words: “It is unbelievable.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

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6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Surprising Characters on Friends Who Were Originally the Show's Main Couple

Everyone was enthralled by Ross and Rachel's romantic drama—but how would you feel about Monica and Joey's?
Everyone was enthralled by Ross and Rachel's romantic drama—but how would you feel about Monica and Joey's?
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When you think of Friends, your mind probably goes to all the hilarious one-liners, such as Joey's "How you doin'?", or all the romantic relationships in the show, most importantly Ross and Rachel's. We watched the pair's love story blossom since their first kiss back in season two, and the couple is widely regarded as one of the best in TV history.

Well, there was another couple planned that didn't make the cut. Just as Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc wanted their characters Phoebe and Joey to get together, showrunners planned for Monica and Joey to be an item. And they weren't just going to be a fling—the two were originally the Ross and Rachel of the show.

Vulture reports that Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman initially had Monica and Joey coupling up, explaining:

"It would’ve unfolded like this: Joey, a 'perpetual horndog,' would’ve eventually been lured and 'tamed' by Monica as he continued to climb up in the world of acting. Crane, however, found himself 'bored' by this version of Joey; he retooled Joey to be a funnier and warmer character within the friend group, and dropped the romance with Monica altogether."

Would've been weird, right? According to Entertainment Weekly, it wasn't just Crane who didn't like the idea. LeBlanc himself, who played Joey, wasn't into his character trying to pursue Monica, not wanting to play someone who was perceived as creepy and hit on everyone.

It seems Joey went through some serious revisions before Friends became what it is today, and it's probably for the best. He doesn't end up married in the end, but at least Monica gets her happily ever after moment with Chandler.

[h/t Vulture]