Above: a re-enactment of Mata Hari's execution, apparently from a 1922 French movie. The scene seems to be based on the idea that Mata Hari was executed near the small hill called the "butte aux canons," or "butte de tir" in the Park of Vincennes and it may show the actual hill in the park. But there are no photograps or specific descriptions telling us where exactly the execution took place
As the centennial of Mata Hari's death, Oct 15th, 1917, approaches, we could think that we should do something to remember the killing of an innocent woman. Maybe we should gather where she was shot and place there a small memorial of some kind. But where exactly? As it often happens when dealing with Mata Hari's story, truth always seems to be shrouded in a veil of mysterys. And that's true also for the place of her execution.
One thing we know is that during her trial, Mata Hari had been detained in the prison of St. Lazare, in Paris (and badly mistreated as she was there). On the early morning of Oct 15th, she was taken by car to the place where she was to be shot; somewhere in the military area of Vincennes, near Paris.
This much is known, but from here onward things get muddled. One problem is that we don't have photos of the execution, There is one that is sometimes described as an "actual photo" of the execution and seem to tell us that Mata Hari was shot in an open area. But there is no evidence that it really shows this specific event. Then, the various descriptions of the execution normally mention the "Caponnière," which is normally should be understood as the area between the outer wall and the central tower (the "donjon") of the castle of Vincennes (in English, the corresponding term is "scarp," as opposed to "counterscarp", which is the outside of the wall). That would imply that Mata Hari was executed inside the castle.
Other descriptions mention the "butte aux canons," (or the "butte de tir") a small hill approximately in the center of the park that used to be the emplacement of some artillery pieces. Today, it is called the "Belvedere". There is also the possibility that the term "caponnière" was used generically to indicate the whole area around the castle of Vincennes.
So, was it the wall or the hill? (the caponnière or the butte?). Perhaps the most detailed description of the execution of Mata Hari is the one by Emile Massard, the commander of the Paris garrison during the Great War, as written in his 1922 book "Female Spies in Paris" ("Espionnes à Paris"). Here goes Massard, translated from French, describing how Mata Hari was taken by car to the site of the execution.
We moved at moderate speed toward the Place de la Nation et la Porte Daumesnil, when, suddenly, we were surrounded, preceded, and followed by some twenty motor cars of journalists. They decided to group together and take the lead of the column to move toward Vincennes. Midway along the avenue, they turned right to move toward the butte de tir. But that was not the way. And the street was closed.
We kept going on the right, to go to the castle. The journalists noted that we were not following them and, as we passed them, I saw them making gestures of disappointment. I understood their state and I was sincerely sorry for them. (..)
Before leaving for the place of the execution, one always stops at the tower (of the castle of Vincennes). There, one stops for a few minutes to wait for the formation of the escort of dragoons who surround the column.
A car with some reporters had been able to enter the castle with us. I pretended not having seen it. But the commander of the castle noeted it and forced it to turn around. (..)
And there we are, on our way for the last stop. We took hidden paths and the car advanced slowly, strongly bumping. (..)
And there comes the sinister hill. At the foothil, the pole made by a thin tree trunk.
Now, several details of this story don't make much sense. First of all, the reporters knew that Mata Hari was to be shot at the butte de tir, so they were going there; even "taking the lead" of the column; one car with Mata Hari, another as a spare vehicle. But the reporters are surprised and disappointed when they see the cars turn right and move into the Castle of Vincennes. One of the cars with the reporters manages to follow, but it is turned away by the commander of the garrison.
Later on, according to Massard, the cars with Mata Hari leave the castle again, to move to the "sinister hill." Now, wouldn't the cars with the reporters be still waiting outside the castle? Maybe they had been dispersed by the dragoons, but Massard doesn't tell us anything about that. Besides, if he knew - and he must have known - that the cars would leave the castle again, why does he tell us that he was "sincerely sorry" for the reporters left outside? And why did they made such an effort to get in?
On the other hand, Massard tells us explicitly that Mata Hari was shot at a "sinister hill" which would seem to indicate outside the castle. It is perfectly possible that Massard lies: he lies on almost every page of his book so it wouldn't be surprising that he lies about the place of the execution, too.
Overall, however, I tend to think that it is most likely that Mata Hari was really shot at the butte de tir, if nothing else because we have photographic evidence that other people were shot there. For instance, that's true for Marguerite Francillard, another (pretended) female spy executed on January 10, 1917. The picture on the right is taken from Massard's book and it clearly shows a forested hill that can only be the butte de tir. We also have images of another (maybe) spy, "Bolo Pacha", executed in front of a hill in 1917, most likely the same "butte de tir". So, that was the usual place to shoot people and it is probable that the tradition was not changed for Mata Hari. But, as for many things about Mata Hari, we'll never know the truth for sure.
One interesting point that comes out from Massard's report is that the reporters were prevented from witnessing the execution of Mata Hari or, at least, kept at a considerable distance from the place. So, everything that was written about it comes from second-hand reports. Apparently, some journalists interviewed the people who were present at the execution and the result is some degree of confusion, with some details missing in some reports but appearing in others and some wild legends taking root, such as that she was wearing a "sable coat over nude flesh", a legend reported (and criticized) by Julie Wheelwright in her book "The Fatal Lover" (1992).
Note also that some journalists were not so shy as to report the event as if they had been there. Below, a text written by Henry Wales, American reporter stationed in Paris at the time of Mata Hari's execution. He never says that he is reporting things that he saw with his very eyes, but he clearly tries to give this impression. And yet, it has to be a second-hand story. Ten years later, the same Henry Wales published a completely invented interview with Charles Lindbergh after he had landed in Paris, on May 27th, 1927. Later, Wales had to confess that it was a fake interview, but it doesn't seem that he ever admitted that his report of Mata Hari's death was fake, too.
And this shows, among other things, that "fake news" is nothing new.
Henry Wales, International News Service on Oct. 19, 1917,
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.