1917: Mata Hari, femme fatale

6 comments October 15th, 2008 Headsman

At 5 a.m. this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.

She died in a muddy drill field outside Paris, facing a firing squad as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, her eyes (she refused a blindfold) open.

For the oldest profession, it may be there is nothing truly original, nothing new under the sun. But Mata Hari — thanks in no small part to her genuinely fatale end — redefined it for the dawning age of mass visual media and tapped the power of sexual allure for a commercial century.

She was already pushing 30 when she got into the exotic dance game, with a failed May-December marriage behind her from what a wag might call her first sexual bargain, to get out from under the thumb of her family and see the world. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier. Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.

She exploited her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood — and claimed to be an Indian princess; her talent for repackaging oriental exoticism with just the right amount of otherness combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.

Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two.

She comes at the start of our own era: sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product; celluloid was just coming online, and 14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:

That’s her with the last object of her affections, a Russian aviator young enough to be her son, and a reminder that the birth of Greta Garbo’s era was also the death of Mata Hari’s own.

She was aging, for one thing. For another, of course, war shattered Europe. Famous, decadent, polyglot … those things that had been her passport suddenly became her liabilities. Globetrotting travel? Payoffs from a multinational cast of officers for her companionship?

There’s no take here on whether she was really, as convicted, a German spy of any variety at all — she seems to have been approached, to have tried her hand clumsily or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence, or simply to have behaved indiscreetly. Once she was caught up against events, her maneating reputation did her no favors.

Spying, she was terrible at. Commanding men’s attention? As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last.

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 underofficer 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.

* Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Language,Netherlands,Popular Culture,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1794: Loizerolles and others for the Conspiracy of the Prisons

1 comment July 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, the Jacobin government struck what would prove to be its last blow against the “Conspiracy of the Prisons.”

The “conspiracy” was really a cover story for Robespierre‘s boys to wield their purifying torch against prisons and (of course) tighten the grip of authority by wild reference to treasonable plots abroad.

Supposedly, the prisons had birthed a scheme to effect a mass escape further to some sort of counterrevolutionary insurrection, or assassination of Robespierre. Marvelously, these conspiracies simultaneously spanned most all of Paris’ prisons, and their “authors” formed a dominant demographic among the Terror’s last tumbrils as the authorities purged each prison in turn.

While we have tarried to profile select victims individually this week, we have in fact repeatedly met so-called prison conspirators.

Luxembourg Prison — whose warders had concocted the earlier “conspiracy” involving Camille Desmoulins’ wife — had been purged repeatedly earlier in the month; its last spasm swept up the Noailles women.

An efficient detour to the Carmelite Monastery converted by revolutionary Paris into another gaol netted Alexandre de Beauharnais.

And the first batch of St. Lazare Prison felled Andre Chenier, where, as elsewhere, dozens were punished for some impressively villainous designs.

Being convicted of having declared themselves the enemies of the republic, by keeping up communications with the enemies of the state; by furnishing them with assistance; by participating in the plots, conspiracies, and assassinations of the tyrant and his wife, against the people; by conspiring in the maison d’arret (lock-up house), called Lazare, to escape, and to dissolve, by the assassination and murder of the representatives of the people, and more especially of the members of the committees of public safety and general security, the republican government, and to re-establish royality; — in fine, by wishing to destroy the unity and indivisibility of the republic.

(The march of the penal inquisitors through the plots is covered in a French Wikipedia page.)

Charles-Louis Muller’s 19th century painting of the Saint Lazare Prison “conspirators” being summoned to their doom. Seated in the center is Andre Chenier.

Each of these famous figures is a noticeable face among dozens of hapless wretches, largely drawn from the Third Estate and often laughably implausible escape artists and assassins — such as, among this day’s victims, an 80-year-old priest. The most poignant fate among the many forgotten threads threads of life clipped short is undoubtedly one Jean Simon Loizerolles, who was imprisoned with his son.

On the 7th Thermidor, about four o’clock, p.m., the bailiff of the tribunal presented himself at the prison with the mortuary list, or, in other words, the death-warrant.

Loizerolles was called for: it was Loizerolles, junior, whom death surrounded. Loizerolles, the father, did not hesitate to present himself; and, comparing his sixty-one years to the twenty-two years of his son, he determined to give him life a second time: the father went down, and was conducted to the Conciergerie.

He there received the bill of accusation, drawn up by order of the Committee of Public Safety, and headed Prison Conspiracy.

This bill bore the name of Loizerolles, junior.

The next day the father appeared for examination, with his twenty-five companions of misfortune.

The bill of accusation, which was joined to the depositions, stated that it was Francois Simon Loizerolles, junior, aged twenty-two.

The declaration of the sentence, prepared in anticipation upon the bill, bore the same designations. The recorder contented himself with effacing the name of Francois, and putting above it Jean.

Finally, the questions submitted, for the sake of form, to the jury, and drawn up in anticipation upon the same bill of accusation, contained the names and the designation mentioned in the accusation. But, at the time of the trial, when the charge was made to the jury, Coffinhal took care to efface the name of Francois, to substitute that of Jean, and to erase te word son, which was replaced by the word father. He rudely altered the two figures from twenty-two to sixty-one, and added the former profession of the father, which the accusation did not state.

And Jean Simon Loizerolles, against whom there was no accusation, was put to death on the 8th Thermidor.

Loizerolles is renowned for nothing in life save the touching valor of his death, but his name was a watchword for paternal devotion in France in the 19th century; Jadin wrote a short opera to his honor, and Victor Hugo references Loizerolles (bizarrely side by side with Robespierre’s younger brother) in Les Miserables as the sort of paragon of loyalty disdained by a gauche skeptic. But the gambit worked: Loizerolles junior survived the last days of the Terror, and was later pensioned by Charles X.

For every triumph, there were countless tragedies. The prisoners had wind of the enterprise to decimate their number days before; an anonymous account printed here (also the source of the Loizerolles story) describes a ramping-up of abuses great and petty in an effort to provoke a rising that would license a bloodbath, and the fear and desperation of the prisoners as death circled them.

Our melancholy and dejected hearts prepared themselves for death. The prison appeared surrounded by a funeral veil, and the death-like silence which pervaded it produced a dreadful feeling of misery in its inmates. Games and amusements were banished from the grounds, and our cadaverous countenances afforded an index of our afflicted souls; the refectory, which was wont to inspire a sentiment of cheerfulness, became a meeting of moving spectres, who quitted each other without exchanging a word.

The prisoners at St. Lazare could no longer indulge in illusions on the fate that awaited them … old age and infancy had ceased to be respected; all were alike condemned as guilty of the project of escape; and the man who was the most harmless and the most devoted to his country was no longer exempt from accusation.

But there was a small favor: a third repetition of the scene was postponed two days, which turned out to be all the difference between life and death.

[T]he Robespierrists, delighted in perpetuating our terrors, announced that the tragic scene would be renewed on the 10th.

The two days which we passed in anticipation of our destiny were two days of unmitigated agony: a general mourning reigned through our asylum; our eyes, in fancy, beheld on all sides the palpitating and struggling bodies of the victims of Robespierre, and of the villainy of his agents; tranquility quite abandoned us; death was hovering over our heads; and the prison appeared, to our diseased fancies, like a sea of blood, on which we had suffered shipwreck …

In this deplorable situation we saw no end to our sorrows but in death; and, however terrifying the grim visitant may naturally be, yet we deemed his arrival too long delayed, and invoked his coming, while we regretted that we had not been of the number of the first victims. When, about ten o’clock, p.m., of the 9th Thermidor, it was reported in the prison, that Robespierre was formally accused, the news, which had been brought by three new prisoners from without, inspired distrust, and savoured too much of the miraculous to be easily believed.

The following morning … the information was confirmed … in such a positive and circumstantial manner that we could no longer entertain a doubt of its truth.

It may easily be conceived how sudden was the change which was effected in the prison of St. Lazare: the prisoners began, for the irst time, since the 5th, to breathe more freely; their hearts, which had been so long cast down, received a fresh inspiration; their countenances cleared up; the full use of their suspended faculties was restored; and the images of death, which had affrighted them, were dissipated; and if they could have forgotten the assassination of their companions, they might have entirely lost the recollection of their misfortunes.

The death of Robespierre, and the close of his dark crimes, were the subject of an epigram, which an individual wrote upon the wall; it describes the monster too accurately, not to find a place here:

Il s’abreuva du sang d’un million de victimes, —
Il parla de vertus, et commit tous les crimes.

A thousand victims slaked his thirst for blood,–
He spoke of virtues while he swam in crimes.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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