Facts About Historical Figures' Relatives We Learned In 2021

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Vote up the most intriguing tales of famous characters' relatives.

Learning about the family connections of famous figures is an effective way to deepen one's understanding of them and the impact they had on history. Mozart first got hooked on music because he wanted to be like his big sister; Harry Truman was an overprotective father; Frederick Douglass passed on a love of music to his grandson, who took it to the next level. Siblings of historical figures help to shape them, while descendants must grapple with their outsized legacy, whether it be a positive or negative one.

Here are some tales of historical figures' relatives we learned over the course of 2021. Vote up the ones that deepened your appreciation for that figure's importance, or that just make interesting stories in their own right.

  • Ulysses S. Grant's Granddaughter Married A Russian Prince And Fled The Russian Revolution
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ulysses S. Grant’s granddaughter, Julia Dent Cantacuzène Spiransky-Grant (also called Julia Dent Grant Cantacuzène Speransky) lived an extraordinarily eventful life befitting the family name. As granddaughter of a president and beloved war hero, Julia was American royalty. However, the man she married (after a whirlwind courtship) in 1899, Prince Michael Cantacuzène of Russia, made her real royalty. For almost two decades, the couple lived befitting their rank - lavishly and extravagantly - at the Russian court. However, in 1917, the Russian Revolution forced them to uproot their entire life. 

    According to Julia, she, Michael, and their children fled to the US from Russia with “little more than the clothes they were wearing." Once safely on American soil, the prince and princess lived a vastly different life. The prince started working at a bank, and an article Julia penned about her family’s experience during the revolution (written to bring in money to support the family) launched her writing career.

    She lived until the age of 99, passing in 1975.

    136 votes
  • Maria Anna Mozart May Have Been More Talented Than Her Brother Wolfgang
    Photo: Eusebius Johann Alphen / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    100 VOTES

    Maria Anna Mozart May Have Been More Talented Than Her Brother Wolfgang

    Maria Anna Mozart, older sister to Wolfgang, was a musical prodigy. Born in 1751, Maria Anna - often called Marianne or Nannerl - began playing the harpsichord under the guidance of her musician father, Leopold, at the age of 7. She and her brother (also introduced to music at a young age) began to tour with Leopold, performing in cities throughout Europe.

    Nannerl may have served as a role model, an inspiration, or even a rival for her brother. When the two appeared together in Munich in 1762, one observer recalled, "The poor little fellow plays marvelously. He is a child of spirit, lively, charming. His sister’s playing is masterly, and he applauded her.”

    Leopold described his daughter in 1764, noting:

    My little girl plays the most difficult works which we have... with incredible precision and so excellently... what it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe.

    Leopold dedicated himself to the musical abilities of his children, and was somewhat tyrannical in his efforts. Nannerl was said to have helped Wolfgang in some of his training but, once she entered her late teens, her career as a performer came to an end. By 1770, the focus shifted to finding her a husband.

    While she waited to find a suitable match (she didn't marry until 1784), Nannerl composed music, sending her work to her brother. Wolfgang was an enthusiastic recipient, writing to her, "My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well, in a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.” Sadly, we can't judge for ourselves, as apparently none of Nannerl's compositions have survived. It is likely, however, that she left a stamp on the work of her more famous little brother.

    100 votes
  • Amon Göth's Daughter, Monika Hertwig, Is Still Grappling With His Legacy 
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Amon Göth (1908-1946) was the notoriously brutal commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War II. He was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the 1993 film Schindler's List.

    Monika Hertwig (b. 1945) was 1 year old when her father was executed for his war crimes. A retired university administrator, she appeared in the 2006 documentary Inheritance, in which she discusses the difficult legacy her father left behind.

    Hertwig knew little about her father as a child, and only learned the full story years later:

    I asked my mother and said, 'Where's my father?' And she said, 'Like millions of men, he died for his country, and he's dead,' and shut down. I believed her; I didn't know why I shouldn't believe her.

    119 votes
  • Robert Todd Lincoln Was Saved By John Wilkes Booth’s Brother 
    Photo: John Goldin & Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Robert Todd Lincoln was the only one of President Abraham Lincoln’s children to survive to adulthood. Consequently, he spent his entire life as “Abraham Lincoln’s son” and constantly struggled to construct his own identity - a sentiment he expressed himself. 

    Understandably, as a Lincoln, he is inextricably linked to many historical events. Most of them, however, are coincidental. Shortly before the President was slain, Edwin Booth - John Wilkes Booth’s brother - saved Robert from a serious train injury. He recounted the incident years later:

    The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn.

    In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.

    Robert was also closely linked to three presidential assassinations: He was at his father’s bedside when the elder Lincoln perished; he was about to speak to President James Garfield when the latter was shot by Charles Guiteau in 1881; and he was on his way to the event where President William McKinley was shot when the shooting occurred.

    His proximity to each event led Robert to believe he was cursed. But a popular theory that he swore off presidential functions following McKinley’s demise is more historical myth than reality.

    113 votes
  • Both Of Oscar Wilde's Half-Sisters Perished In The Same Tragic Fire
    Photo: Napoleon Sarony / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish poet and playwright, had two half-sisters, Emily and Mary. Both women had the same father as Oscar (Sir William Wilde) and were in their early 20s when they celebrated Halloween with their brother at Drumacon House in County Monaghan, Ireland, in 1871. 

    The event was one for members of high society and, according to local parish records

    The two girls attended the ball and remained there when all the guests had gone home. The host took one of the girls for a last dance around the floor. As they waltzed past the open fireplace, the girl's crinoline dress caught fire. 

    It's not clear which sister this was, but at the sight of the catastrophe taking shape, the other sister jumped in to help. While doing so, "her dress caught fire. The host of the ball wrapped his coat around them and rolled them down the steps in front of the house into the snow."

    The details of what exactly took place vary in other accounts, but both Emily and Mary were horribly injured in the incident. Records indicate Mary perished of her burns on November 8, while Emily survived until November 21, 1871. They were buried next to each other with a tombstone that read, in part, "They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in their death they were not divided."

    103 votes
  • Frederick Douglass's Grandson Was A Celebrated Violinist
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass gained international renown after escaping slavery. Aside from being an accomplished orator, author, and political figure, he was also a violinist. After purchasing a violin in Scotland, Douglass taught himself to play and later shared that skill with his son Charles and grandson Joseph. 

    Joseph became an accomplished violinist in his own right, playing for audiences at his grandfather’s speeches around the country, and for several presidents. Perhaps most notably, he performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. And just as his grandfather taught him the violin, Joseph went on to teach others. He was a tenured professor at Howard University and counted famous American composer Clarence Cameron White among his students.

    At a time when musical achievements by Black citizens had not yet reached their full flowering, Douglass's success on the concert stage was an inspiration to his community. The Colored American (a newspaper) wrote in 1900 that "Mr. Joseph Douglass, this brilliant young man of our race, will add materially to the glory of those artistic achievements which coming years have in store for us." 

    81 votes