On 24 July 1917, in the darkest days of the First World War, Margarethe Zelle MacLeod (dite Mata Hari) was found guilty of espionage by the Troisième Conseil de Guerre in Paris and condemned to death by firing squad. Nearly three months later, just after dawn on the morning of 15 October, in a clearing among the ancient oaks of the Bois de Vincennes, the sentence was carried out. The mysterious and once beautiful dancer who had captivated Paris with her exotic performances at the Trocadéro and the Folies Bergère, who had entranced audiences in theatres and clubs and private salons throughout Europe, who had been notorious for her wealthy lovers, her glamorous wardrobe and her extravagant lifestyle, collapsed into a crumpled, bullet-ridden heap in a ditch. The crackle of rifle fire, followed by the single shot of the obligatory coup de grâce delivered by Maréchal des Logis Petay of the 23rd Regiment of Dragoons, released a storm of myth and legend that has engulfed her story ever since.
Press reports of the event the following day were sensational: several claimed that she had not died at all – an impassioned lover had bribed the firing squad to load their rifles with blanks and had then scooped her into the saddle and galloped off into the morning mist; at