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

The first female coach drivers in Paris in 1907

Mme Duffaut and 'badauds'

Mme Dufaut on the Boulevards: the gawkers outnumber the customers. Source: here

Recently I came upon a great set of photographs and postcards showing the first female coach drivers in Paris in the early 20th century. They were called les femmes cocher,  les femmes cochères or simply cochères. The French language was trying to come to terms with this new phenomenon. You can see many of the photos here. According to this website, the novelty of women drivers created a media sensation in Paris. The women drew more journalists, photographers and crowds than customers, and inspired a range of jokes, music-hall sketches, even a movie

I was of course curious to see what some of the newspapers were saying about these pioneers in 1907, the year when the first women passed the coach driving exams. So I did a little digging in BnF/Gallica’s newspaper archives. Rather predictably, the conservative and Catholic newspaper La Croix was anything but positive and saw these women as yet another threat to traditional gender roles, to the family, to society, and the universe. On 6 April 1907 satirical magazine Le Rire – never very subtle in its sense of humour – said the whole thing was funny at first, but now worried about the inevitable increase in deadly accidents with children. A woman would never be strong enough to control a horse. The magazine was joking, but only half-joking. It was not exactly known for its progressive views when it came to women, something the cover, entitled ‘what to do with our baby girls?‘, of that same issue on April the 6th illustrates. It wasn’t all doom and reactionary backlash in the papers though. Positive sounds in the press came from Le Radical, where the editorial simply states that Parisians should just get used to seeing women in different professions, since women in other countries as well as in the French countryside are doing all sorts of jobs and manual labour already. Le XIXe siècle considered women taxi drivers an inevitable development of modern society. The paper backs this opinion up by drawing from history, arguing that women were already driving carriages in Ancient Rome. So there. If it was good enough for the Romans. By 1909 the profession of cab driver seemed to have become accepted enough to be presented as a valid job choice in an official career guide for women, the Guide pour le choix dune profession à l’usage des jeunes filles et des dames, which you can find here on Gallica. choix d'une profession The guide lists the requirements for the job. You had to be over 18 and be a resident of Paris. Women had to register with the Préfecture de Police and have a thorough knowledge of all the streets in order to pass the theoretical exam set by the Préfecture. This was then followed by a practical exam. It is, the guide warns, a tough job, earning on average only 6 francs for long, 16-hour days. Also, beginners are often not hired by the larger companies. Honest advice, though not very encouraging.

Mme Charnier

Mme Charnier. Source: here

On 4 February 1907 Le XIXe siècle had already given an enthusiastic account of one of the first practical exams for women cab drivers. The first two women to pass the rigorous tests were Mme Charnier and Mme Dufaut, or Duffaut, who impressed the newspaper’s reporter. Other women would follow, though they would remain very much a minority over the years. XIXe siecle Mme Dufaut was not just met with curiosity from the public, but also with harassment it seems. Le XIXe siècle reported that a man pretending to be a customer had attempted to cut the leashes of Mme Dufaut’s horse as a sort of practical joke. Luckily Mme Dufaut had been unimpressed, informed the police and continued doing her job. The press meanwhile moved on to the next hype.

Mme Dufaut

Mme Dufaut. Source: here

Femme cocher en 1913

Here to stay: ‘femme cocher’ in Paris in 1913 (Agence Rol). Source: Gallica/BnF