The joy of genealogy is in finding unexpected twists and turns in your family’s past. For some, it’s a reason to celebrate—the direct descendants of the frontiersman Davy Crockett and author Leo Tolstoy, for example, assemble every few years for a jolly reunion. For others, well, having a link to a certain lineage might be something they'd want to hide. And being a descendant (a term we use loosely here to also include non-direct descendants) of any notable figure from history can bring plenty of baggage along with it. Here’s what the descendants of eight controversial historical figures are doing right now.
1. Aaron Burr’s descendant is boating buddies with Alexander Hamilton's great-great-great-great-granddaughter.
In 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were embroiled in a venomous feud and decided to “take it outside,” engaging in a duel that, ultimately, led to Hamilton’s death. More than 200 years later, there’s no bad blood between the two families anymore: In fact, members from both sides go kayaking together. Antonio Burr—a descendant of one of Aaron Burr's cousins who portrayed the third vice president in a reenactment of the duel for its 200th anniversary in 2004—once served as Commodore of the Inwood Canoe Club in New York. Fittingly, Alexandra Hamilton Woods, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, served as the club’s treasurer for a time and worked alongside Burr. The two originally met at a party and only put together their familial connection (and their passion for canoeing) after some small talk.
“I used to tease him about our respective history,” Hamilton Woods told the New York Post in 2015. “We’ve had a number of interesting conversations. But I have great fondness and respect for Antonio.” Though each defends their respective family member's actions surrounding the duel, when they had to deal with club matters, Hamilton Woods said, "[Antonio] and I find ourselves usually on the same side.”
2. Adolf Hitler’s great-nephews are proud Americans in Long Island.
Descendants from Adolf Hitler's paternal side of the family currently reside in Long Island, New York, and, if you ever visit, you’re likely to find them proudly flying the American flag. Their father, William Patrick Hitler, was the son of the dictator’s half-brother Alois, who had the same father as Adolf. William moved to the United States in 1939 shortly after having a falling-out with his uncle, and would famously write an article for the July 4, 1939 edition of Look magazine called “Why I Hate My Uncle." As you'd expect, the Führer was no fan of Willy, either, calling him “my loathsome nephew.”
During World War II, William would join the United States Navy and earned a Purple Heart while serving his new country. After the war, he changed his name and had four sons, three of whom continue to live quietly in Long Island and rarely speak to reporters. The scattered anecdotes that do exist from neighbors describe a perfectly normal childhood in the town of Patchogue, and their adulthood has been similarly unassuming: One brother became a social worker, while the other two run a landscaping company together. None are married; none have children.
3. Benito Mussolini has a Political Playboy Model granddaughter.
On April 1, 2019, the following words actually appeared in the Washington Post: "Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, is engaged in a bitter feud with Jim Carrey, the actor best known for the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber. No, this is not an April Fools’ Day joke, and yes, the Internet is to blame."
Unlike Hitler’s descendants, Alessandra Mussolini has no problem calling attention to herself, nor is she ashamed of defending her ancestor’s past. So when Carrey insulted her grandfather on Twitter, Mussolini started tossing verbal tomatoes at the funnyman and his defenders. It’s no surprise: According to the New York Times, Mussolini ran for office as a member of the "neo-fascist" Italian Social Movement in 1992, before more recently serving in the European Parliament as a member of the Forza Italia party. In addition to embracing her grandfather’s legacy and far-right politics over the years, Mussolini has posed as a Playboy cover model, acted in a dozen Italian films, and even released an album of pop music (in Japan, no less).
4. Christopher Columbus’s Spanish Naval Admiral great-great [...] grandson.
It’s not uncommon for a child to follow in his or her parent’s footsteps. Sometimes, a grandchild might even join the business. But it’s not often you hear about a descendant 500 years removed taking on the family job and the titles that go along with them. That is reportedly the case with Cristóbal Colón de Carvajal y Gorosábel, a direct descendant 18 generations removed from Christopher Columbus. Not only did Cristóbal join the Spanish Navy, sail around the world, and command his own ship in his younger days, but he also holds onto many of the ceremonial titles that have been in his family for generations: He's technically still Admiral and Adelantado Mayor of the Indies, the 18th Duke of Veragua, and the 16th Marquis of Jamaica, but he told the BBC these titles are merely "honorific" now.
Though the 70-year-old Colón doesn't have much business in the United States, he famously made headlines after he was named grand marshal of the 1992 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, which gained the ire of many Native American groups; it was later announced he would be the co-marshal with U.S. Representative Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American politician from Colorado. Today, he'll occasionally pop up in the news to defend the most controversial member of his family tree.
5. Josef Stalin’s granddaughter is a Buddhism-Practicing Punkster.
In 1967, Stalin’s only daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, embarrassed the Soviet Union by defecting to the United States. Her daughter Olga Peters—a.k.a. Chrese Evans— is now decidedly American. According to the most recent reports, Evans lives in Oregon, practices Buddhism, and works as an antiques dealer. Sporting some wicked tattoos and punk-rock hair, she’s been photographed carrying a toy Kalashnikov rifle, prompting the New York Post to claim: “Stalin’s granddaughter is an all-American badass.”
6. Napoleon Bonaparte’s descendant married Napoleon's second wife's great-great-great-niece.
Napoleon Bonaparte wrote some seriously mushy love letters to his first wife, Josephine, during the late 18th century. (Take this doozy: “I hope before long to crush you in my arms and cover you with a million kisses burning as though beneath the equator.”) Apparently, the talent for saccharine prose was passed down to his descendants.
In 2019, Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoléon—an investment banker and great-great-great-great-nephew to Napoleon—married Austria’s Countess Olympia von und zu Arco-Zinneberg, the great-great-great-niece of Napoleon’s second wife, Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. Remarking on the connection, he said: “When I met Olympia, I plunged into her eyes and not into her family tree.” Proof, if anything, that he inherited his great-great-great-great-uncle’s silver tongue.
7 and 8. Hideki Tojo’s great-grandson and Harry S. Truman's grandson are looking to atone.
Hideki Tojo was Japan’s Prime Minister during much of World War II, before being executed as a Class-A war criminal in 1948. Today, his great-grandson, Hidetoshi Tojo, an entrepreneur, is interested in making amends. According to The Associated Press, “[he’s] reached out to Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of wartime U.S. President Harry S. Truman” and has discussed working together on different projects to bring people together.
“Reaching full reconciliation all at once would be difficult,” Tojo said in 2015, according to the Miami Herald. “But I’m sure we can build understanding, if we can respect each other, and that would be a first step.”
For his part, Clifton Truman Daniel, the descendant of a controversial figure in his own right, currently advocates for the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is a vocal supporter of nuclear disarmament.