Sinner and Saint: The Spy in a Thong and the Good Nurse

Margaretha Zelle was a Dutch-born exotic dancer and a sensation throughout Europe. Her early life is sketchy, but after an unhappy marriage to a Dutch Army officer 21 years her senior, she obtained a divorce and, leaving a daughter with relatives, went to Paris where she preformed as “an Indian temple dancer” trained in the East, taking the name Mata Hari.

Notorious for her many lovers, usually rich aristocrats, she had liaisons with German political and military men. With the outbreak of World War I, she was questioned and put under surveillance by the French who eventually convinced her to travel to neutral Spain and seek out German naval and army attaches so as to report intelligence back to Paris. They soon accused her of being a double agent, however, and when she returned to Paris in February 1917, she was arrested and charged with being a German spy.

She was convicted and sentenced to death. Many people still believe she was completely innocent. On October 15, with the words, “I am ready,” Mata Hari was taken to an army barracks to face her death. She had made a direct appeal to the French president for clemency and was expectantly awaiting his reply. A British reporter covered the event:

The Execution of Mata Hari. International News Service Oct. 19, 1917 by Henry Wales

“The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her. Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties. The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come. ‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her. She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer. Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress. Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly: ‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile. The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up. Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn. The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth. ‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them. ‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold. Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away...

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her. The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target. She did not move a muscle. The under officer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air. It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back. Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman. Mata Hari was surely dead.”

Edith Cavell

In the fall of 1914, a Belgian named Herman Capiau came to Edith Cavell with a request that she hide two British soldiers and Cavell, despite knowing the danger, agreed and from then on became a part of a smuggling network for more than a year before being caught. A castle owned by Prince Reginald and occupied by the Germans was surrounded by 30,000 wooded acres in which Allied soldiers enroute to Holland could hide undetected. Here, their pictures were taken and they received fake I.D. papers before proceeding thirty miles to Cavell’s clinic where they used a password to get in and stayed long enough to be smuggled out safely.

Cavell was reprimanded by her superiors for her indiscriminate anti-German statements and for her carelessness at writing letters home alluding to her escapades. By 1915, the Germans grew suspicious of her and sent George Garten Quien, a spy posing as a doctor, to gain her trust. Cavell was arrested on August 5, 1915, as were many of her collaborators and Cavell confessed. On Oct. 12, 1915, Edith Cavell, wearing her nurses uniform, and fellow collaborator Phillipe Baucq were executed by a German firing squad. As she was blindfolded she asked for some safety pins so that she might pin her hem together to prevent her skirt from flying up. Two different films were released within six months and more followed later telling the story. The story was twisted to argue for harsh post-war treatment of Germany in a 1919 Metro film entitled “Why Germany Must Pay” which portrayed an innocent Cavell surrounded by lusty, drunken Huns. A CPI Russian language film showed Germans disguised in fake nurse and nun clothing stabbing the wounded on the battlefield. The American Red Cross had meanwhile barred some individuals with German surnames from joining, fearing sabotage.

The propagandists got about as much mileage as humanly possible out of dead Edith Cavell. She was pictured in everything from propaganda posters depicting the Huns as the enemy of civilization to recruitment rallies. The warmakers sponsored memorial parades, erected statues and even named mountains and flowers for Cavell while German nurses were being portrayed as cruel monsters. But Cavell was not the only woman executed, or even the first! The Belgians executed Julia Van Wartinghem for spying in 1914. In March and May of 1915, the British and French executed Margaret Schmidt and Ottilie Moss on charges of espionage for the Germans, and in August, 1916, they executed a woman known simply as “Mrs. Phaad.” There were no Mrs. Phaad parades, Mount Mrs. Phaad or Mrs. Phaad Roses in her memory