135 Years Ago On This Day, Diphtheria Killed Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse
In the latter months of 1878, diphtheria infected the Hessian court. In November 1878, the Grand Ducal household fell ill with diphtheria. Alice’s eldest daughter Victoria was the first to fall ill, complaining of a stiff neck in the evening of 5 November. Diphtheria was diagnosed the following morning, and soon the disease spread to Alice’s children Irene, Ernest, Alix, and Marie. Her husband Louis became infected shortly thereafter. Elizabeth was the only child to not fall ill, having been sent away by Alice.
Marie, the youngest child at four years old, became seriously ill on 15 November, and Alice was called to her bedside. However, she was too late; Marie had choked to death by the time Alice arrived. She was distraught, writing to Queen Victoria that the “pain is beyond words.” For several weeks, Alice kept the news of Marie’s death secret from her children, but she finally told Ernest in early December. His reaction was even worse than she had anticipated, and at first, he refused to believe it. As he sat up crying, Alice broke her rule about physical contact with the ill and gave him a kiss. At first, Alice did not fall ill.
However, by Saturday, 14 December, the anniversary of her father’s death, she became seriously ill with the diphtheria caught from her son. Her last words were “dear Papa”, and she fell unconscious at 2:30 am. Just after 8:30 am, she died. Alice was buried on 18 December 1878 at the Grand Ducal mausoleum at Rosenhöhe outside Darmstadt, with the Union Jack draped over her coffin. A special monument of Alice cradling her youngest daughter was erected there.