Day 161 of Colourisation Project – October 15
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
Ninety-seven years ago, this day, 15 October 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan, was executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.
Better known by her stage name, Mata Hari, (Malay for ‘sun’ – literally, ‘eye of the day’) she was suspected of being a double agent. According to army captain Georges Ladoux, she was hired in 1916 to pass on military information extracted from her lovers to the French government. Mata Hari, who bedded both German and French officers was soon accused of being a German spy.
France at the turn of the century had very liberal laws regarding nudity. Today’s image taken in 1906 was one of many popular nude images of Mata Hari in circulation. Ordinary strippers may have encountered legal problems, but Mata Hari’s reputation as an exotic dancer was firmly established and her ‘artistic’ and ‘religious’ dances were within the law, as were printed images displaying her nudity. By 1905 nude postcards were being widely sold in France.
During World War I her frequent traveling across international borders and her bevy of male lovers (usually military men from opposing sides of the war), who were willing to provide her financial support in exchange for her company, caused several countries to question her activities.
The French suspecting her of duplicity arrested her in February of 1917 and after a short trial in front of a military court, conducted in private, she was sentenced to death. On October 15, 1917 she was executed by firing squad in Vincennes, near Paris. She was 41 years old.
Mata Hari’s guilt has been widely contested and the nature and extent of her espionage activities remain uncertain. There was very little evidence to sustain the crimes of which she was charged nor was anyone able to point to any documentary evidence, plan or secret that she passed on to the Germans. Thirty years after her death one of her prosecutors conceded that “there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat.”
The mystery surrounding Mata Hari’s life and alleged double agency continues to pique curiosity and has elevated her to a legendary status. The very notion of an exotic dancer and courtesan, working as a double agent, using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her lovers has spawned numerous biographies and cinematic portrayals, including Greta Garbo’s in the famous 1931 Pre-Code film Mata Hari, a film which is often credited with popularizing her legend.
The German government publicly exonerated Mata Hari in 1930, and the French dossier documenting her activities, reportedly indicating her innocence is scheduled for public release in 2017, one hundred years after her death.
“A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never! I have always lived for love and pleasure.” – Mata Hari