The Real Women Spies

Mata Hari

Was she or wasn’t she a spy?

Margaretha Zelle was born on August 7, 1876 to Antje van der Meulen and Adam Zelle, the village hatter. She was the oldest child of four, and, despite her later claims, both of her parents were of Dutch descent.

Her father was a hat-maker, but like his daughter, preferred to live beyond his means, and his fellow Leeuwardeners nicknamed him the Baron. He had invested in oil shares at a time when coal ruled the world, and had completely wiped out his wife’s meager inheritance before M’greet was thirteen.

After her father declared bankruptcy, he moved to Amsterdam to live with his mistress, taking two of M’greet’s two younger brothers with him. She was left to take care of her heart-broken mother, who died eight months later.

M’greet bounced from family member to family member, finally moving to Sneek to live with her godfather, Mr. Visser. Visser decided that, since she had no dowry, she would have to learn to earn a living. She enrolled in school to become a kindergarten teacher, but a scandal with the headmaster, Wybrandus Haanstra, forced her to quit.

This time she went to The Hague to live with Mr. Taconis, an uncle. The eighteen-year-old M’greet dreamed of another life, a more exotic one, so when she spotted an advertisement stating, “Captain in the Army of the Indies, on leave in Holland, seeks wife with a character to his taste, preferably with means,” it seemed fate was knocking at her window.

The advertisement had been placed by a friend of Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a nearly forty-year-old balding military captain recuperating from a bout of malaria he had caught at his base in the Dutch East Indies.

M’greet answered the ad and included a picture of herself. MacLeod immediately wrote back and offered to meet her in front of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The two married on July 11, 1895. M’greet was not quite 19.

Their first child, a boy, was born on January 30, 1897. They christened him Norman John. Shortly after their son’s birth, the couple relocated to the island of Java.

The marriage was not a happy one: MacLeod blamed his sensual wife, twenty years his junior, for his lack of promotion. It was socially acceptable at the time for men in the Dutch East Indies to have mistresses, and MacLeod had plenty.

MacLeod was given a new posting in Malang in 1897, and things looked up: they had more money and MacLeod started sharing M’greet’s bed more.  Another child, named Louise Jeanne, was born in May 1898. They nicknamed their daughter ‘Non,’ which was a shortening of Nonah, which meant “Little Miss” in the local language.

In 1899, both children fell violently ill. At the time it was rumored that a servant poisoned them, but it was more likely a mercury treatment for syphilis that sickened them. It has been hypothesized that MacLeod gave M’greet syphilis early in their marriage and she passed the disease on to her children congenitally. Norman John never recovered and died at the age of two. Non managed to survive, and they moved to a more remote post in Java. The marriage continued to deteriorate: MacLeod was drinking heavily, and accused M’greet of being responsible for their son’s death, sometimes even beating his wife. M’greet talked openly of ending the marriage and returning to Europe, to live in Paris, for, in her own words, “Where else does a divorced woman go?”

Want more of M’greet’s story? Read a fictionalized account (based on the true story of Mata Hari) in L’Agent Double: Spies and Martyrs in the Great War!


Craig, Mary, W. A Tangled Web: Mata Hari Dancer, Courtesan, Spy. Stroud: The History Press, 2017. 

Howe, Russel Warren. Mata-Hari. The true story. Dodd, Mead, & Company, New York, 1986.

Shipman, Pat. Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari. London, 2007.

The Mata Hari of World War 2: Mathilde Carré

Mathilde was born on June 30, 1908 to Arséne Narcisse Joseph Belard and Jeanne Belard. “Lily,” as her family called her, pursued a law degree at the Sorbonne, an unusual feat for a woman at the time. There she met Maurice Henri-Claude Carré, a schoolteacher. Maurice hailed from a lower class than the Belards, and Mathilde’s parents did not necessarily approve of the match.

Nevertheless, the two were married on May 19, 1933 and then moved to Algeria, where Mathilde took a job teaching. Six years into their marriage, Mathilde was confronted with two facts about her husband. One, that he was impotent, as revealed by her mother-in-law, due to a childhood bout with illness. The other was that Maurice’s father had died in a mental institution and not during the Great War as he had originally told her.

She filed for divorce the same month that the war broke out. Mathilde left North Africa for Paris, where she joined L’union des Femmes de France, a precursor to the French Red Cross. She trained as a nurse in a surgical hospital outside of Paris. Maurice was sent to Syria. He was killed shortly after their last meeting (as detailed in the novel).

Despite almost fainting the first time she assisted with surgery, Mathilde excelled at being a nurse. She worked long hours, often accompanying doctors to the front to treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield.  She was relocated to Toulouse after the Armistice. One night in October 1940, she met a handsome man who introduced himself as Armand. He was really Roman Czerniawksi, a Polish Air Force captain and intelligence officer.  He Had been captured by the Germans after France surrendered, but had managed to escape with the help of a widow, Reneé Borni, who hid him in her home and supplied him with her late husbands’ clothing and French passport.

Mathilde and Roman bonded over their hatred for the Germans. He called her “Lily”, her childhood nickname, and she called him “Toto” for reasons unknown. He confided of his Polish intelligence connections.

To be among the first to read Mathilde’s story, sign up here to receive an Advance Review Copy for The Spark of Resistance: Spies and Traitors in the Second World War

Why was Loreta Velasquez’s name mentioned during the Lincoln Assassination trials?

In October 1865, a man named Sandford Conover wrote to the chief prosecutor during the Lincoln assassination trial, stating that he had uncovered a Jefferson Davis-approved plot to poison President Lincoln. The plan would have had the “she-wolf” who had posed as Lieutenant Buford, none other than Loreta Velasquez herself, actually deliver the poison.

Sandford Conover was one of the many aliases of Charles Dunham, the dubious journalist who sparked the Confederate prison plot featured in Underground: Traitors and Spies in Lincoln’s War. When Loreta first met Dunham in Castle Thunder, he was introduced as Harvey Birch, a name perhaps purposely mimicking that of the main character in James Fenimore Cooper’s American Revolution novel, The Spy. Dunham also occasionally went by James Watson Wallace, Franklin Foster, Isaac Haines (or Haynes), Henry Wolfenden, W.E. Harrison, George W. Margrave, John McGill and many other aliases. Of course, Loreta was going by the alias Alice Williams at the time, so while they were acquainted, it wasn’t an intimate enough relationship for them to reveal their real names.

As the Civil War was in its early stages, Dunham was unsuccessful in an effort to raise a Union regiment. He then traveled to Richmond, where he offered to try to do the same for the Confederate Army. Understandably, the Richmond authorities imprisoned him for a brief period. After his release, Dunham traveled to New York, where he began his less than illustrious journalism career. He became acquaintances with Confederate refugees in Canada, and began writing articles warning of possible plots to free Southern prisoners.  In his Harvey Birch column, published by the New York Herald in September 1863, he wrote that he had  “left Washington on the 19th of March last for the purpose of invading the “sacred soil” to a point near Mason and Dixon’s line. The object of my journey being of no concern to anybody, I need not take time to disclose.”  After crossing Ashby’s gap, he was captured by Mosby’s raiders, who accused him of being a Yankee spy. He seemed to switch sides as often as he switched names. 

According to Dunham, Loreta remained a lodger at Castle Thunder after she was released by Winder, supposedly because she had a free room. He relayed that Loreta was “boarding, drinking, gambling, and carousing with Capt. Alexander and other officers.” Dunham claimed that Loreta was eventually sent North on a truce boat and that, before she left, she expressed hope that he would soon be released so that they could meet in Baltimore.

After Lincoln was assassinated, Dunham was called to testify as a witness. He spoke first of a conspiracy headed by former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for which he gave no solid evidence. Dunham then wrote an article under one of his pseudonyms to discredit his own charges, for reasons unknown but possibly because he, like Loreta, would pursue infamy at whatever cost. He then switched to another story, at which point the judge got tired of his antics. Accused of perjury, he was thrown in jail. Soon he was conspiring again, this time with fellow prisoners, Benjamin F. Butler (of no relation to General “Beast” Butler) and another man to declare that the Lincoln plot had actually been headed by President Andrew Johnson.

Where was Loreta during the spring of 1865 when she was supposedly plotting to kill the President? True to form, she told several different stories, some of them contradictory. In 1866, she claimed that she was in New York, preparing to leave for Europe. In her autobiography, The Woman in Battle, published in 1876, she wrote that she was in Columbus, Ohio, at the Neil House, having “conferences with several persons concerning the affairs” of the South when she found out that Lincoln had been assassinated. Loreta stated that “Mr. Lincoln was the enemy of the cause I loved, and for which I labored and it would have been intensely repugnant to my feelings to have made any outward manifestations of mourning.” Wherever she was, it seems she probably had nothing to do with Lincoln’s actual assassination, despite Dunham/Conover’s accusations.