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8 Sensational Female Murderers from History

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When someone tells you that female murderers are rare, keep in mind that means “relatively” rare, as in less common than male murderers. It also means that women who are found to be killers can become quite famous for it, as the media sensationalizes their crimes. A hundred years later, these cases may be mostly forgotten, but the stories are still there for those who want to learn about them. Be warned that these tales are disturbing.

1. Marie Manning

Marie de Roux Manning was born in Switzerland in 1821 and immigrated to England as a domestic servant in 1846. She became involved with Patrick O'Connor, a wealthy Irishman, and Frederick Manning, a railroad worker and suspected thief. Both proposed to Marie. She considered which would make a better husband: O’Connor was 50 years old, but also a customs agent with investments. Manning was Marie’s age, and told her he would soon inherit wealth. Marie married Manning, but retained a “friendship” with O’Connor, which was most likely sexual. It wasn’t long before she figured out that Manning’s expected inheritance was fictional. The couple invited O’Connor to dinner on August 8, 1849. O’Connor showed up with a friend, which disappointed the couple and thwarted their plans. Marie invited him back the next evening, but asked O’Connor to come alone, hinting at intimacy. During his visit on the 9th, Marie shot him in the back of the head, which did not kill him, so Frederick finished him off with a crowbar. The couple buried their victim under the kitchen floor tiles, where they had dug a hole ahead of time, and added quicklime to speed decomposition. Over the next two days, Marie cleaned out what valuables, cash, and stock certificates she could find at O’Connor’s home.

But O’Connor had mentioned his plans to friends. After they came to inquire about O'Connor's whereabouts, Marie panicked. She sent Frederick to try to sell their furniture so they could flee. While he was gone, she did just that, leaving her husband behind. She went to Edinburgh, Scotland, while Frederick went to Jersey. The police soon uncovered O’Connor’s remains. Marie was arrested when she tried to sell some of O’Connor’s stock certificates, and Frederick Manning was turned in by an acquaintance. Both blamed the other during the trial, but both were found guilty and sentenced to death.

The scandalous crime (which was termed the “Bermondsey Horror”) drew much interest. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people attended the double hanging on November 13th, 1849. Charles Dickens was there, and wrote about the execution and his disgust at the festive nature of the crowd. Some excerpts:

"I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning" "I believe that the a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the crowd collected at that execution this morning." "When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world."

Dickens’ writing on the matter was in part responsible (along with those of other influential Englishmen) for the abolition of public hangings in England by 1868.

2. Constance Kent

Four-year-old Francis "Saville" Kent went missing from his home in Road, Wiltshire, England, on the night of June 29, 1860. His body was later found in an outhouse, his throat slashed. At first, the child's nursemaid Elizabeth Gough was suspected of the murder, but then his sixteen-year-old half-sister Constance Kent was arrested. She did not go to trial, however, and was released. The family moved away and Constance was sent to school in France.

Five years later, Constance Kent confessed to the murder during confession with a priest. She turned herself in to law enforcement and pled guilty to the murder. Her original death sentence was commuted to life in prison due to her age at the time of the crime. But was she really guilty or covering up for someone? There was speculation that the father, Samuel Kent, had killed the child for some reason to do with his known tendency to adultery. Others looked to Constance’s brother, William Saville-Kent, as the perpetrator, and some thought the two teenagers committed murder together out of jealousy over their stepmother (who was once their governess) and her children. Constance Kent was released from prison after 20 years in 1885, and lived to be 100. The dramatic murder investigation was covered extensively in British newspapers, and the news inspired stories by both Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as other writers. It also provoked Parliament to take up the question of whether priests can refuse to answer questions about sacramental confessions.

3. Belle Gunness

Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth was born in Norway and came to the US in 1881. Later known as Belle Gunness, she married Mads Albert Sorenson in 1884. The couple produced four children, two of whom died in infancy, but were fortunately covered by life insurance. During the marriage, both a home and a business burned down and insurance was paid out. Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, coincidentally the one day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped.

Belle married Peter Gunness in 1902. He already had two daughters, one an infant who died while under his new wife's care. Gunness himself died in December of 1902 when a heavy machine fell on him. Gunness' death was investigated, but Belle was not charged -possibly because she was pregnant. Soon after, her adopted daughter Jennie Olsen, who was questioned over remarks she had made about Peter Gunness' death, disappeared completely. Gunness began corresponding with men through a lonely hearts club. She invited suitors to visit her and bring money. John Moe, Ole B. Budsburg, and Andrew Helgelien were among the many men who came to visit Gunness and brought money to help the poor widow with her mortgage, and were never seen again. She became suspicious that her hired hand, Ray Lamphere, would rat her out, so Gunness fired him and reported that he threatened her.

In 1908, the Gunness home burned down. Four bodies were found under the piano: three of Gunness' children and the headless body of a woman whose measurements did not match Gunness. However, dentures found in the ashes were hers, and the coroner pronounced Belle Gunness to be dead. As the property was cleared, depressions in the ground raised suspicions. Digging revealed the body of Jennie Olsen. The bodies of six suitors and two children were also found. Many other possible victims were reported to the police by concerned relatives. The hired man Ray Lamphere was convicted of arson and died in prison, but not before he revealed details of his days with Gunness. He had told a minister how Belle would kill her victims with strychnine or a meat cleaver, then dismember their bodies before Lamphere buried them. The fate of Gunness has never been positively determined. She had withdrawn her money from the bank before the fire. The identity of the headless woman has also never been determined.

4. Dagmar Overbye

Dagmar Overbye ran a foundling center in Copenhagen from 1916 to 1920. It was supposedly a place where unmarried mothers could take their infants to be adopted, although they had to pay a fee for the infant to be accepted. The unsavory business of hiding the scandals of others was something few talked about, and Overbye operated under the radar for several years. It is unclear how well records of the babies she took in were kept, if at all. The parents who paid Overbye to take care of matters rarely even spoke of it, much less went back to check on their babies. One woman finally did.

Karoline Aagesen placed her newborn daughter with Overbye in 1920 and immediately regretted her decision. Aagesen went back to retrieve her child the next day, but Overbye told her the baby had already been adopted, by a couple whose address she couldn’t recall. Aagesen went to the police, who investigated Overbye and the “adoption agency” she ran out of her apartment. They found baby clothes and charred bones in the stove. Overbye was arrested and confessed to killing either 16 or 20 babies (reports vary). However, from the evidence found, she was convicted of only nine murders. The babies had been strangled, drowned, or burned, and some bodies were found in her loft and buried underground in addition to the evidence from the stove. More parents came forward after Overbye’s arrest, and estimates of the number of infants she may have killed range from 29 to 180. It is believed that the first child Overbye killed was her own, born a few years before she opened her baby business. She was sentenced to death in 1921, which was commuted to life, and she died in prison in 1929.

5. Jane Toppan

Boston nurse Jane Toppan admitted to first eleven murders, then later to 31. Despite recklessness with drugs, unusually high patient deaths, and charges of theft, she managed to find employment over and over again in Massachusetts between 1885 and 1901. In 1901, Toppan moved in with the Davis family after the death of their elderly mother she had been caring for. Within a short time, the father and two daughters were dead. She also killed her foster sister, before an investigation—which found the victims to be poisoned—led to her arrest. Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was held in a mental institution for the rest of her life. Toppan was said to have been proud of the killings.

6. Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton had three husbands and twelve children who died of ambiguous gastric illnesses between 1852 and 1872. The third of her four husbands survived, and her 13th and last child was born as she awaited trial. Several stepchildren and lovers also died of the same symptoms, but Cotton avoided suspicion by constantly moving to different towns around England.

The first sign of trouble for Cotton came in 1872 when she predicted the death of her 10-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official who was asked to find the boy employment, even though the child appeared healthy. The official happened to also be the parish coroner. When Charles Edward died suddenly a few days later, Cotton's first errand was to collect on his life insurance. Told that she needed a death certificate, Cotton went to the child's doctor, who refused to sign because the coroner had alerted police about the conversation he'd had with Cotton. Besides, the doctor had seen the child only the day before and noticed no illness. An examination of the body found evidence of arsenic. Two other bodies from the family were exhumed and were also found to contain arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty of the death of her stepson and was promptly hanged. Her widely-publicized story was made into a nursery rhyme.

Mary Ann Cotton,
She's dead and she's rotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.

7. Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer was a trained nurse from Bristol, England, who turned to “baby farming” for a living after the 1869 death of her husband when she was 32. Like Dagmar Overbye, she “took care” of infants born to unmarried women, with the added service of taking in and hiding the mother in the later stages of pregnancy -for a fee. Baby farms flourished in Victorian times. Some would care for children and get them adopted out, others would neglect babies or dose them with opium to make their care easier, leading to many deaths. Dyer accelerated this process by murdering infants, usually by strangling them with a ribbon around their necks. She operated a baby farm for ten years before a doctor, suspicious of the number of dead babies he certified, contacted police. Dyer was arrested, convicted only of neglect, and sentenced to six months labor. After her sentence was completed, Dyer spent some time in a mental asylum, and eventually went back to baby farming. This time around, she dispensed with obtaining death certificates from doctors and buried the infants herself. Dyer moved from town to town, changing her name when parents or officials became suspicious.

In March of 1896, a bargeman retrieved a package from the Thames containing a tiny female corpse. Police traced the packaging to Dyer under an assumed name. When police raided her home, they found no human remains, but the smell of decomposition was in the air. They did find evidence of her business: baby clothes, telegrams, advertisements, and letters from mothers. Six more infant bodies were found when the river was dredged. Dyer was charged with one murder, that of Doris Marmon, after the baby’s mother, Evelina Marmon, identified the remains. Dyer pled guilty, but offered a defense of insanity. A jury sentenced her to death, and Dyer was hanged on June 10, 1896. Although convicted of only one murder, Amelia Dyer is suspected of up to 400 infant deaths over a period of 27 years.

8. Tillie Klimek

Chicago resident Tillie Klimek was a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs in 1911 with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband of 29 years, John Mitkiewitz. Astonishingly, Mitkiewitz died three weeks later! Klimek collected his life insurance money and went to a matchmaker. Her second husband John Ruskowski died only three months later, just as Klimek predicted. The same thing happened to husband number three, Joe Guszkowski. Husband number four, Frank Kupczyk lasted four years. Klimek also foresaw the death of a neighbor woman who raised suspicions about Klimek's husbands. Klimek predicted the deaths of three children belonging to a family she had trouble with as well -and sure enough, the children all died. Husband Kupczyk died in 1920.

The widow was remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number five, in 1921. Soon after a new life insurance policy went into effect, family members visited the Klimek home and found Anton sick in bed. When his stomach was pumped, the food Klimek has eaten was found to contain arsenic. Tillie was arrested and confessed to the attempted murder of Anton Klimek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the deaths of her other suspected victims were not investigated. Her sentence carried the stipulation that Klimek was never to be allowed to cook for other prison inmates.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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