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.


Marie, the seventh and last child of Princess Alice, was born on 24 May, 1874, almost exactly a year after the death of her brother, Frittie. The young princess, nicknamed May, was adored by Alix and Ernie, and their mother lavished particular affection on her three younger children.

On 6 November, 1878, first Victoria and then Alix fell ill with diphtheria, to be followed by May, Irene, Ernie, and then their father, the Grand Duke Ludwig. Princess Alice personally took care of the nursing arrangements, but she still found time to send reports to Queen Victoria. On 15 November she wrote: ‘And my sweet little May so bad - so bad; will she get through it! My little one - my last! Oh, it is agony!’ The next day a telegram arrived at Balmoral to tell the Queen that the little princess had died.

The news of May’s death had to be kept from the other children, and so the grief of Princess Alice was intensified by the need to behave as though nothing had happened and to conduct May’s funeral without them knowing. It was not until the beginning of December that Alice could bring herself to break the news to Ernie, and it was her spontaneous, comforting embrace that resulted in her catching the infection herself. She died on 14 December, four weeks after the death of her ‘sweet May’.

Queen Victoria’s Grandchildren - Lance Salway


† November 16, 1878 – Death of Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine

Tragedy strikes again upon the Hessian family when on 16 November 1878, the youngest child of the Ducal couple died from diphtheria at the age of four. Following a joyful summer in England, Princess Victoria the eldest began to feel pain in her throat and neck, soon the children (except Ella who was sent to Queen Victoria) and the Grand Duke himself fell ill. Princess Alice nursed them all with great care but Princess May passed away few days after catching the disease. Princess Alice came down with the disease herself and died on 14 december, she is buried beside her daughter, a statue by Joseph Boehm was placed on the tomb of Alice holding Marie in her arms.

A very dreadful day. — After breakfast, a telegram was brought to me, which said, that precious little May was gone! This is too dreadful. How my darling child, adored that little angel. Westerweller telegraphed the news. The sweet child died suddenly at ½ p. 12. Alice terribly grieved but brave. Louis better, Ernie less satisfactory, & the others better, especially Alicky. Telegraphing to poor dear Alice, & all the family. To think of all this misery, & all, whilst the others are still so ill! — Resting on the sofa. Telegram from dear Alice herself: “Our sweet little one is taken, broke it to my poor Louis this morning. He is better, Ernie still very ill. In great anguish”. — Endless telegrams. All so distressed & grieved. — Can think of little else, am so anxious. — A telegram from poor dear Alice in the afternoon: “the pain is beyond words, but God’s will be done”.’ Queen Victoria’s Diary


Children of Royalty: Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and Alice of the United Kingdom

  • Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven
  • Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna of Russia
  • Irene, Princess Henry of Prussia
  • Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse
  • Prince Friedrich
  • Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna of Russia
  • Princess Marie