in prison

It’s busy on the Champs-Elysées. I’m in front of No. 103, a large, elegant office building, on the corner with the Rue Bassano. I look upstairs, to the first floor and in my mind I go back in time to 13 February 1915. Six men enter the Elysée Palace Hotel in Paris: police commissioner Albert Priolet and the five inspectors Mercadier, Curnier, Desloyères, Génelin and Frisou. They knock on the door of room 131.

Mata Hari opens the door. Priolet tells her that she is charged with spying for the enemy. They search her room and bathroom. Everything she has is confiscated. She is taken too, and brought before Captain Bouchardon, Rapporteur of the Court Martial. Photographs are taken of her. The first interrogation begins.

I open the Dossier Secret du Conseil de Guerre (the secret file from the Court Martial). A thick book of reports, letters and statements relating to her trial published by French author Jean-Pierre Turbergue. I had recently discovered that it had also been published online and had written a few articles about it for newspapers. But here in Paris, on the Champs-Elysées, I want to know what her last months in Saint-Lazare Prison were like.

She was thrown into a dark cell, full of vermin, where the rats had free play. ‘She is very emotional and nervous,’ noted doctor Jules Soquet after examining her. ‘She told me she’s vomited blood. She menstruates, but her heart and lungs are all right. She doesn’t have a fever. ‘She can cope with a trial. But it would be better if she were in a cell with a bit more light and fresh air. ‘

‘Captain,’ she wrote to Bouchardon, her interrogator, ‘My intentions are sincere and I beg you not to imprison me anymore. I don’t deserve this.’

‘Captain. I asked you for a little money and you have not given me anything yet. The most necessary items are withheld from me, even stamps for the letters to my lawyer. I implore you, do not abandon me to my fate.’

‘I cannot stand it anymore. I need fresh air and movement. I cannot stop them from killing me, but it makes no sense to make me suffer needlessly. It is all becoming too much for me.’

‘I cry constantly, you’ve caused me to suffer too much. I’m totally crazy. I beg you to put an end to this. I am a woman. This is my strength. ‘

‘I have blotches on my body. Does he want me dead? Should I kill myself? ‘

‘The woman Zelle doesn’t have a fever. However, the syphilis for which she received treatment when she came to Saint-Lazare will return.’

‘My lawyer asked you to give me a picture of Captain De Massloff. I hope, lieutenant, that you do not refuse me this.’

‘We get such dirty rice to eat that dogs would refuse it.... The beds are full of vermin. I’m hungry all day long. Why, lieutenant, do you let me suffer so? You can interrogate me, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am a woman.’

It is now 25 July 1917. The Court Martial pronounces the death penalty. She cannot believe it. ‘C’est impossible. It isn’t possible.’

I take the subway to Vincennes. Saint-Lazare Prison was demolished a long time ago, I won’t find her footsteps there. But I can retrace them in Vincennes, where she was shot on the morning of 15 October 1917. I walk past the castle, to the place where I think it happened.

She is awoken early on the 15th of October. She slept well, thanks to the double dose of a sleeping-inducing drug that prisoner doctor Dr. Bizard gave her before wishing her a good night. She sits on the edge of her bed and dresses carefully. Stockings, a gray jacket, long gloves, knee-length boots and a three-cornered hat. Dr. Bizard offers her smelling salts. She declines.

They walk down a long passageway, ‘where rats scurry across our feet,’ Bouchardon writes later in his memoirs.

‘Don’t be afraid, Sister Léonide,’ she says. ‘I will die without trembling. You’re going to see a beautiful death.’

The twelve soldiers take aim and fire. She collapses. Sergeant Petoy walks over to her and delivers the coup de grace.

Private Paul Koenig, one of the twelve members of the firing squad, said later: ‘I have participated in a lot of executions, but this was the most moving and dignified one for me.’

Rudolph MacLeod, almost 600 miles away in Velp in the Netherlands, said: ‘Whatever she did during her life, she did not deserve this.’

I head back to my hotel, filled with sadness.

 This photo is often regarded as the only true record of Mata Hari’s execution, but it actually comes from a 1922 film about her.