Beethoven at 250

On 17th December 2020, it will be 250 years since the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius. In those days, it was custom to baptise babies within 24 hours of birth, so let us celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer and reflect upon the genius of his work, which has survived and remains popular in the 21st century.

Beethoven, named after his grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), a professional singer and music director, was destined to become a musician. His father, Johann (1740-92) was also a singer and musician who performed in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne. His mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87) was the daughter of the head chef at the court of the Elector of Trier.

Born on 17th December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children of which only three survived infancy. His younger brother Kaspar (1774-1815) experimented with musical composition but never became famous. Beethoven’s youngest brother, Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848), took a different career path and opened a pharmacy in Linz, Austria.

Beethoven’s father taught the boys to play the piano, and possibly the violin, from the age of five. As he got older, Beethoven received lessons from local musicians on various instruments: organ, piano, violin and viola. Although Beethoven showed considerable musical talents, his tutoring sessions were long and hard, and his teachers strict, often reducing the young boy to tears. Tuition took place at any time of day and night and, on occasion, Ludwig was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for an impromptu piano lesson.

It was not only the tutors that were harsh on Beethoven. His ambitious father was aware of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) and his sister Nannerl (1751-1829), who were impressing the population of Salzburg, Austria, with their musical talent and youth. When Beethoven made his first public performance at the age of seven, his father claimed he was only six to make his son appear to be as talented as the Mozarts.

At the beginning of the 1780s, Beethoven began studying with the German opera composer and conductor, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98). Principally teaching him to play the piano, Neefe was Beethoven’s most influential tutor during his youth. Beethoven became Neefe’s assistant as an unpaid organist in 1782 but two years later had risen to a paid position at the court chapel.

As well as piano technique, Neefe taught Beethoven about composition. At the age of 11 and 12, Beethoven composed his first keyboard works. The three piano sonatas are known as the Kurfürstensonaten (Elector Sonatas), dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels (1708-84), the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the Bishop of Münster. For such a young composer, Beethoven’s compositions were remarkably mature and gave an early glimpse of his Classical piano talent.

Beethoven … a boy of 11 years and most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well … the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe puts into his hands …

Magazin der Musik (1783)

The success of these sonatas gained Beethoven financial support from several people, but between 1785-90 Beethoven disappeared from the limelight. As far as historians are aware, Beethoven did not produce any compositions during this time, most likely as a result of ongoing problems within his family. Beethoven’s mother passed away in 1787 just after he had returned from Vienna where he had heard Mozart play. Being the eldest surviving child, a lot of the family responsibility fell to seventeen-year-old Beethoven.

Complicating things further, Beethoven’s father lost his job due to alcoholism. Although Johann van Beethoven was offered a pension, the money was ordered by the court to be paid directly to Ludwig so that he could look after his younger brothers. This money was not enough to keep the family afloat, so Beethoven had to earn a salary. He achieved this by taking on pupils and playing the viola in the court orchestra. The orchestra played music by several composers, including Mozart, which must have felt like an insult to Beethoven who was brought up to consider Mozart his rival.

Making up for lost time, Beethoven composed several works between 1790 and 1792. Although not published at the time, they show his progression from his first works ten years before. Neefe encouraged Beethoven to take on commissions and introduced him to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer, who briefly stayed in Bonn for Christmas in 1790. Beethoven much admired the older composer and Haydn was also impressed with Beethoven’s talents. When Haydn returned to Bonn in 1792, Beethoven was earning money by playing the viola in the court orchestra. Haydn, on the other hand, wished to tutor Beethoven personally and invited him to Vienna. One of Beethoven’s financial supporters, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762-1823) encouraged the proposal, stating: “You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes … With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and devoted himself to study and performance under Haydn’s guidance. He also received tuition from the Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) and learnt about composition from the classical composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).

Using his connection with Haydn to his advantage, Beethoven developed a reputation as a performer and gained the financial support of several Viennese noblemen, including Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). By 1793, Vienna knew Beethoven as a piano virtuoso, but he was also an up-and-coming composer.

Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna took place during March 1795, in which he performed a piano concerto he had written. Dedicating it to one of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1761-1814), Beethoven formerly published the music as a set of trios for piano, violin and cello under the name Opus 1. The profits for this publication was enough to cover Beethoven’s living expenses for a year.

Over the next couple of years, Beethoven published and wrote many concertos and sonatas. By 1799, 28-year-old Beethoven published his thirteenth musical work (Op. 13). Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, or Sonata Pathétique as it is more commonly known, is one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” (Barry Cooper, Beethoven, 2008)

By 1800, Beethoven was the most talented young composer after Haydn and Mozart. The same year, he published his first symphony, which he dedicated to his patron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). The premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna alongside performances of works by Haydn and Mozart. The premiere was hailed “the most interesting concert in a long time” by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (General music newspaper). The next year, Beethoven premiered his first ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at the same location.

Following these successes, Beethoven published his second symphony in 1803. The first performance of Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) took place at the Theater an der Wien in a concert that also featured Beethoven’s third piano concerto (Op. 37) and his only oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85). The latter, which Beethoven claimed to have written in only two weeks, portrayed the emotional torment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Six years later, the oratorio premiered in the United States where it became Beethoven’s first success in America. 

As well as composing, Beethoven worked as a teacher. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) and Carl Czerny (1791-1857) are among the more successful of Beethoven’s pupils, but he taught a wide range of students over time, including women. In 1799, Beethoven became the piano tutor of the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Josephine (1779-1821), although nothing ever came of the relationship. Nonetheless, letters survive that indicate there may have been a secret romance.

Other letters, however, indicate Beethoven had feelings for another of his students, Countess Julie Guicciardi (1784-1856). Considering himself to be in a lower social class, Beethoven never pursued a relationship, but in 1802 he dedicated his Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 to Julie. After his death, this sonata became better known by the name Moonlight Sonata.

In the early 1800s, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss. At first, he attributed this to a fit he suffered in 1798, after which he struggled with severe tinnitus. From descriptions in letters to his friends and brothers, Beethoven likely had osteosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the inner ear) and a degenerative auditory nerve.

Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna to come to terms with his diagnosis. Surviving letters suggest Beethoven had mixed feelings about his condition. Mostly, he seemed upbeat, but one letter suggests he once considered suicide. Although Beethoven never became entirely deaf, it became increasingly difficult to play at concerts. As a result, he began to withdraw socially.

Nonetheless, Beethoven did not let his condition prevent him from composing. In a letter to a friend, he stated he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Beethoven made no secret of his hearing loss, and he could still hear music and voices until around 1812.

Most likely because of his diagnosis, Beethoven’s music style dramatically changed. On his return to Vienna, he told his pupils, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This attitude resulted in his Third Symphony in E flat Op. 55, or the Eroica, in 1804. Beethoven initially wrote the symphony with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in mind because he admired the ideal of the heroic revolutionary leader. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned with the man and renamed the symphony from Intitolata Bonaparte (Titled Bonaparte) to Sinfonia Eroica – composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony – Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Critics noticed the change in Beethoven’s style. They commented on the dramatic nature of the music, particularly his best-known Symphony No.5 in C Major (Op. 67), which the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) claimed “sets in motion terror, fear, horror, pain, and awakens the infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism.”

Up until Beethoven began to experience hearing loss, his income came from composing, teaching and performing. As the latter area became more difficult, Beethoven relied heavily on the publications of his music. Some of Beethoven’s patrons offered him yearly stipends in addition to commissions, and he took on his most prestigious pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II (1747-92). The Archduke and Beethoven soon became firm friends, and Beethoven dedicated a number of his works to Rudolf, including the Archduke Piano Trio (Op. 97).

In 1807, Beethoven’s work began to be published in England, giving him a larger following. Although he was becoming a popular name across the continent, it was not enough to keep him financially stable. Beethoven had suffered financially. He had fallen out of favour at the Theater an der Wien due to new management. Also, the French occupation of Vienna between 1803 and 1806 hindered his compositions.

In 1808, a benefit concert was held for Beethoven to boost his funds. Although it was under rehearsed and inferior to Beethoven’s previous concerts, it introduced some of Beethoven’s new compositions. As well as a performance of his Symphony No.5, the concert premiered Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Op. 68) and the Choral Fantasy “Fantasia” (Op. 80).

The Napoleonic wars limited the number of commissions Beethoven received, but they began to pick up again in 1809 beginning with the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) play Egmont. Pleased with the result, Beethoven set three of Goethe’s poems to music.

Beethoven fell ill in 1811, suffering headaches and high fevers. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music but moved to the spa town of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic) on the advice of his doctor. While there, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet Goethe, who wrote  “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.” Whether Beethoven’s illness or deafness affected his personality is unknown, but Goethe certainly found him despicable. Likewise, Beethoven disliked Goethe’s personality but, putting their differences aside, composed the music for Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.112).

There is an air of mystery surrounding Beethoven’s personal life, which is heightened by an unsent letter he wrote while staying in Teplitz. Addressed to “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved), the letter is scrawled over ten pages and expresses his passionate love for the unknown addressee. Not discovered until after his death, most historians believe the intended recipient was Beethoven’s former pupil Josephine Brunsvik, however, there are many other candidates.

The letter suggests the feelings were mutual, and the debate continues as to the identity of the lady. Beethoven had sent love letters to Josephine in the past, particularly after she became a widow in 1804. She soon married again, but the relationship was strained and worsened over time. Suspicions that she had an affair with Beethoven were raised after the birth of her daughter Minona in 1813 who was born nine months after Josephine had separated from her husband.

Other suggestions for the intended recipient of the letter include former pupil Julie Guicciardi and Josephine’s sister, Therese Brunsvik (1775-1861). Several musicians and singers that worked with Beethoven are also up for debate, for example, Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), an Austrian singer for whom he may have written the piano bagatelle Für Elise – the manuscript was found with her belongings after death.

Beethoven’s love life continues to be a mystery, but no love letters or hints of a relationship seem to occur after 1812. Around this time, Beethoven struggled with his mental and emotional health. His compositions were less frequent, and his physical appearance suffered. Some suggest his failings in love triggered this period, but he was also dealing with a few family issues. His brother Johann was in a relationship with a disreputable woman, which Beethoven tried unsuccessfully to end.

In 1815, his other brother Kaspar passed away from tuberculosis. Both Kaspar’s wife Johanna (1786-1869) and Beethoven became the joint guardians of Kaspar’s son Karl (1806-56), which sparked several legal proceedings. Beethoven wished to place Karl in a private school and, although he eventually won sole custody of his nephew, the legal struggles continued until 1820.

Due to the ongoing problems with his nephew Karl, Beethoven’s output was minimal. He also suffered healthwise with what he called “inflammatory fever”. Between 1815 and 1819, Beethoven’s only works of note were his Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106) and a musical composition set to poems by Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858).

Evidence suggests Beethoven began working on his ninth symphony in 1818, which coincides with an improvement in health. Unfortunately, his hearing was rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to interact with other people. Several notebooks survive that reveal Beethoven conversed with people through writing rather than speaking. Entire conversations about music, business and personal matters were written out by the participants.

Beethoven rallied in 1819 and was invited by Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to write a piano variation of his waltz. Other composers invited to do the same included Franz Schubert (1791-1828) and the 8-year-old Franz Liszt (1811-86). The idea was to produce one variation, but Beethoven was determined to outdo the others and composed 20 versions by mid-1819. In total, Beethoven composed 33 variations, known collectively as the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (Op. 120) or the Diabelli Variations.

As well as the variations, Beethoven was motivated by the promotion of Archduke Rudolf to Cardinal-Archbishop, which he wished to honour with a mass. The result was the Missa solemnis in D major (Op. 123), performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Later that year another performance took place in Vienna along with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Op. 125).

Symphony No. 9 in D Major is a choral symphony that continues to be one of the most performed symphonies in the world. The final (4th) movement was based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem Ode to Joy and lasts about 24 minutes. The premiere was a great success and was conducted by Beethoven even though by that time he could not hear the music.

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.

Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), violinist

Another conductor stood by with a baton to conduct the orchestra and choir properly. As a result, when the music finished, Beethoven was a few bars behind and continued to conduct. The contralto Caroline Unger (1803-77) approached Beethoven and turned him around to face the applauding audience. Although Beethoven could not hear the applause, he could see the standing ovation and the raised hats throughout the audience.

Meanwhile, Beethoven’s health continued to deteriorate, adding rheumatism and jaundice to his list of ailments. Despite this, he continued to compose and publish music. He also reconciled with his brother Johann who became a frequent visitor.

Beethoven continued to receive commissions despite his failing health, including a series of string quartets for Prince Nikolai Galitzin (1794-1866). Beethoven’s favourite was his fourteenth and final string quartet of the series (Op. 131), about which the composers Schubert and Robert Schumann (1810-56) enthused. Schumann said String Quartet No. 14 had a “grandeur … which no words can express,” while Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Despite being successful in the music world, Beethoven continued to struggle with his family relations. His nephew Karl attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fortunately, he survived and was sent with his uncle to the Austrian village Gneixendorf to recuperate. Whilst there, Beethoven wrote his final major work String Quartet No. 16 in F major (Op. 135), which he dedicated to his patron Johann Wolfmayer.

On his return journey from Gneixendorf in December 1826, Beethoven was taken ill. Doctors noted Beethoven had signs of jaundice, breathing difficulties and severe fluid retention in his limbs. News of his condition spread quickly; he received a large number of visitors, including previous pupils and other composers. Those who could not attend his bedside, for instance, the London Philharmonic Society, sent gifts of money and wine.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven passed away at the age of 56, leaving his nephew Karl as his sole heir. Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868), an Austrian composer and friend of Beethoven who was present at his death, reported there was a clap of thunder at 5 pm and “Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched … not another breath, not a heartbeat more.” Many people visited Beethoven on his death-bed to pay their respects. An autopsy revealed severe liver damage, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption.

Beethoven’s funeral took place in Vienna on 29th March 1827 and was attended by over 10,000, thus proving how successful he was in life. Franz Schubert was among the torchbearers and, after a requiem mass at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), they buried Beethoven in the Währing cemetery. His body has since been reinterred in the Vienna Central Cemetery adjacent to Schubert’s grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven continues to rank among the most played classical composers and is one of the most admired musicians in the history of Western music. During his 45 year career, Beethoven wrote over 772 works, including nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 sonatas, and one opera: Fidelio. He lived his life believing “music is a higher revelation than philosophy” and “music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman”. For Beethoven, music was life; he will live on through his compositions forever more.

Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)

Beethoven on his deathbed

Dealing With Cards

playing cards

Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.

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Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).

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Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.

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Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.

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Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.

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German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.

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French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.

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Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.

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De la Rue, 1860

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De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.

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Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.

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The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?

Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “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.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.