The idea that suddenly, out of nowhere, a long-lost uncle would pass on a fortune has inspired artists from Frank Capra to Jamaica Kincaid to those interested in less weighty fare. Millions of people want to believe it, which has been the basis for a hundred con games, many notably successful. How much better is it if the rich uncle left not only money, but a crown? So if fashion photographer Phillip von Hessen was a savvy New Yorker, he’d have been hanging on to his wallet when he was contacted by the Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper, advising him that he should come to visit the country that might have been his. Finland only gained independence in 1917, and its constitutional planners briefly considered appointing a monarch; their neighbors Sweden and Norway were kingdoms and seemed to get along fine, and naming Kaiser Wilhelm’s son-in-law, Friedrich Karl of Hesse, to the throne could counterbalance the looming threat of Russia. Phillip von Hesse, Friedrich Karl’s grandson, is the man who would be king of Finland, had the German defeat in World War I not forced Finnish politicians to forego their plan and create a republic. For every Don Juan — exiled, stripped of his title, and eventually returned to Spain to watch his son ascend to the throne — or Prince Ra’ad of Iraq, who still has a faint hope of another Hashemite restoration (and has gathered a few supporters, to boot), there’s a dozen members of the Greek royal family who are never going to have a hope of returning to the throne. (Rumor has it that the student directory at Brown University listed Prince Nikolaos‘ last name as "Ofgreece".) And for every Greek prince in exile, there are probably a dozen or more people like Peter Pininski, who discovered that he could trace his ancestry not only back to Polish nobility (Pininski is a count), but to Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose Stuart line was believed to have died out in 1807. Pininski, unlike his celebrated ancestor, shows no sign of plotting the overthrow of the British government. And if computer scientist Mark Humphrys’ theory is right, for every Pininski, there are a thousand of the rest of us, each distantly descended from a Hapsburg or a Plantagenet; Humphrys and colleagues assert that just as almost every actor can be traced to Kevin Bacon, almost every person of European descent could trace their ancestry back to a member of the nobility. The real-life man who would be king, a Pennsylvania adventurer named Josiah Harlan, was driven from Afghanistan (where he had become a tribal leader) when the British arrived; he went home, vented his spleen in a memoir which was never published, then left for California where he began practicing medicine without a license. History does not record attempts to regain his throne. The last prince of Korea’s Joneson dynasty, Lee Gu (link via Stavros), lives in Japan and cannot speak Korean, but he has spent his life pining for a homeland he never knew. What need do we have for fantastic royalty, the Royal and Serene House of Alabona-Ostrogojsk and all the rest? If Mark Humphrys is right, a thousand secret kings walk down every city street, untroubled by the weight of their crowns.