The many faces of a spy. The death of Mata Hari in French newspapers.


Mata Hari 16 oktober 1917

Mata Hari detail

‘She abused our country’s hospitality for years only to betray us’, Le Petit Parisien, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

On Monday the 15th of October 1917 at six in the morning Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, better known as Mata Hari, faced a firing squad in Vincennes. She was 41 years old. Earlier that year she had been sentenced to death for espionage by French military court. Newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which loved a bit of melodrama, describes how the first shots just wounded her after which a sergeant fired the lethal shot from close range. When her body dropped to the ground ‘her eyes’, according to Le Petit Parisien, ‘seemed to look up to the sky as if asking for forgiveness.’ OK then.

Much has been said and written about the Dutch-Frisian woman who reinvented herself in Paris as a mysterious, Asian dancer/courtesan, who captivated audiences at the Olympia and the Folies-Bergères. Today the consensus is that she was never really the master spy – or double agent – the authorities claimed she was. However, she was a good scapegoat. The execution of an alleged traitor, a foreigner no less, a performance artist with questionable morals, offered a small, symbolic victory at a time when France was facing tremendous losses in the war. This was quite clear in the way her death was reported in most national newspapers on the 16th of October. The papers managed to get her real name more or less right, but she is described as either German or simply ‘foreign’.

Mata Hari fusillée Le Matin 16-10-1917

Le Matin detail Fake Hindu dancer, traitor and ‘choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’, Le Matin, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

Le Petit Journal 16 10 1917

Le Petit Journal 16-10-1917 ‘The dancer of German origin’ according to Le Petit Journal, 16 October 1917. The woman in the photo does not really look like her, but who cares, the spy is dead. Source: BnF/Gallica

Le Journal 16-10-1917

Le Journal, 16 October 1917: ‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’. The newspaper uses a detail of a photo of Mata Hari that had already appeared in fashion magazine Les Modes in February 1908 (see below). Source: BnF/Gallica

Mata Hari Les Modes February 1908

The press did not seem too interested in the actual person behind the myth. No journalist bothered to investigate her background or the facts of her case. Instead the papers regurgitated official press releases and old pictures, showing the many faces – literally – of the glamorous, but treacherous Mata Hari.

Newspaper La Croix cared even less and put the news of Mata Hari’s execution on page 4, next to advertising and the weather.

La Croix p4 16 10 1917

‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in…’ Wait, we’ve seen this sentence before. La Croix, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica

Mode et Beauté recommends: criminology, Madame Bovary, massage

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Mode et Beauté, December 1902, source: BnF/Gallica

On incomplete and failed hangings is the disturbing and strangely specific title of a book written by a certain Dr. Verse. Even stranger is that it is among a list of book titles recommended by fashion and women’s magazine Mode et Beauté in 1902. Find it here on BnF/Gallica.

I came across this list while doing research for a talk I gave a few months ago about Jean Lorrain’s newspaper articles. Now, Lorrain was infamous for his gossipy, decadent pieces and his fascination with death, sex, and crime. However I was a bit surprised to find a similar obsession in a magazine primarily devoted to fashion and beauty tips. In the December Christmas issue no less. Mothers killing their children, alcoholism, suicide, sexual assault: nothing better than a bit of light reading to get you through the holidays.

The magazine stressed that its heart was in the right place. As the editor explains: ‘We have created a bibliography for our readers, with works on philosophy, the occult, novels and – in these times of crime and murder – on criminology. We think it is good to share with our readers studies on these important issues. Knowing the causes of criminal development will serve to avoid the danger and help fight poverty, alcoholism and social degeneration.’

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The list of 107 titles for the library of Mode et Beauté’s readers, page 12.

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Detail from the list with a book on Oscar Wilde next to titles on child murders, vampires and failed hangings.

The list of 107 titles is truly fascinating, in particular because fiction is mentioned alongside non-fiction and scholarly literature. Most notable is Madame Bovary. The editors seem to suggest that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Willy and Colette’s Claudine en ménage, Rachilde’s L’Heure sexuelle are on equal footing with ‘scientific’ studies such as Vampirisme, nécrophile, nécrosadisme, nécrophagie. It shows how at the time novels were still very much judged on their morals and their didactic value. And so were literary authors. Hence also the mention of Oscar Wilde whose life and the ‘affair’ are held up as a cautionary tale.

I used this list in my talk to illustrate the extent to which Decadent literature was intertwined in the press with contemporary medical theories and discourse on crime and sexuality. Scientific ideas were being popularised through literature and magazines like this influencing public opinion and perceptions on crime, class, gender and sexuality. Judging from some of these books titles tattoos for example were a clear sign of bad behaviour. 

For the respectable lady readers of Mode et Beauté these titles constituted dangerous reading. Yes, they are must-reads, ladies, but they must only be read as a warning to help you recognise and fight ‘social degradation’ Otherwise who knows. You might end up like Emma Bovary. Or Oscar Wilde. Or a vampire

Fortunately for the readers of Mode et Beauté this December issue wasn’t all doom and gloom. To make sure its female audience would not have the most depressing Christmas and New Year ever, the magazine also recommended this wonderful electric massage tool on page 7, made especially for ladies and their lady parts. Happy holidays indeed!

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According to Mode et Beauté the possibilities of this massage tool are endless.

Real-life gothic horror: The Vampire of Saint-Ouen in L’Écho de Paris (1886)

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In L’Écho de Paris from 1 April 1886 I came across this intriguing headline announcing the arrest of the Vampire of Saint-Ouen accused of violating a corpse at a cemetery.  At first I thought it was some sort of macabre April Fool’s joke. The definition of a vampire is also a bit different from the one in contemporary, popular mythology. But apparently the term vampire also covered necrophilia in the nineteenth century, according to Montague Summers’ introduction to the history of vampires in his scholarly classic The Vampire, his Kith, his Kin (1928), which you can read here.

A slightly disturbing Google search taught me that this article was in fact about an actual crime. On the 25th of March 1886 someone had opened the grave in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen of an eighteen-year old woman buried only the day before and had desecrated her corpse. The April 1st article in L’Écho de Paris triumphantly writes that the police has arrested the ‘auteur de ces actes monstreux’ [author of these monstruous acts], a young 25 year old man names Charles Duhamel who confessed to the crime and who was obviously ‘en proie des horribles hallucinations’ [in the grip of horrible hallucinations]. You can read the newspaper article here.

But there was a twist. Duhamel didn’t do it. Charles Duhamel turned out to be a mentally unstable copycat who had confessed to this crime that had in fact been committed by a man named Henri Blot (1860-1898). He was the real vampire of Saint-Ouen:

‘On 12th June Blot again violated a tomb, he fell asleep, was discovered and arrested. On 27th August, when brought to trial, and the judge expressed his horror of such acts, he replied callously: “Que voulez-vous, chacun a ses passions. Moi le cadavre, c’est la mienne!” [What do you want, we all have different desires. Mine is the cadaver!] Dr. Motet was unable to certify him insane, and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.’ (Summers, 1928, p.69)

On 29 August 1886 L’Écho de Paris also informed their readers that the real vampire had been caught and convicted, this time in a report of the court case tucked away on page two under Chronique des Tribunaux which you can read in full here.

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Two months after his arrest Charles Duhamel had been declared insane and released on 1 June. Blot then committed his second crime in June. He dug up the corpse of a recently buried young girl, which he hid in a shed on the cemetery. When police investigated the building, Blot –no mention of him sleeping here – fled through the window. Officers managed to arrest Blot and later discovered the girl’s body in the shed. The article also tells us that twenty-six year old Henri Blot was a day labourer who had previously worked at the cemetery just as his father had before him. He had a child and a wife who had left him because was abusive towards her.

In this second article in L’Écho de Paris the reporter also mentions that the first female victim was well known in ‘la vie galante de Montmartre’ (read: prostitute). This was of course completely irrelevant, but added a bit of sexiness to a story that, well, wasn’t very sexy. The story suited L’Écho de Paris’ obsession with sex and crime perfectly of course; a fascination also reflected in many of their serial novels. It also fitted the zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century. Vampires, prostitutes, violated corpses: a great gothic horror story served up with a bit of outrage to the evening newspaper’s readers while they were having their dinner. Bon appétit!

Sidenote: The British author of the 1928 vampire book, Montague Summers (1880-1848) was an eccentric and controversial figure in his own right: Catholic clergyman, author, scholar, vampirologist. Google him at your own risk.