A Butterfly in the Sun: The Mysterious Mata Hari

By | August 29, 2019

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Mata Hari. Found in the collection of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Source: (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The historical archetype for the femme fatale is the famous Mata Hari – exotic dancer and double-agent for Imperial Germany during World War I. But the truth of the matter is complex and the likelihood is that Mata Hari was more of a witless victim than a sinister siren.

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Margaretha Zelle and Rudolf MacLeod's wedding photograph. Source: (Fries Museum Collection, Netherlands).

A Dutch Woman

The woman who was to become Mata Hari was born in the Dutch town of Leeuwarden on August 7, 1876, as Margaretha Geertruide Zelle. Her father, Adam Zelle, was a tradesman and investor who spoiled the young girl and presumably her three younger brothers. Eventually, the family became bankrupt, her father abandoned the family for another woman, and her mother died two years later in 1891.

It was in the context of this broken home that Margaretha began to make her way in the world. She first went to school at age 14 to become a teacher, two years later she was expelled for improprieties with the headmaster. She relocated to the Hague where at age 18 she answered an advertisement that was posted on behalf of a Captain Rudolf MacLeod who was looking for a wife. According to various sources, Margaretha yearned for a life of adventure and high lifestyle and it seemed to her feasible that MacLeod might be a path to achieve that since he was posted to the exotic Dutch East Indies. “I wanted to live like a butterfly in the sun,” she would state later. She sent a photograph of herself to MacLeod to entice him.