I doubt you’ve heard of Minnie Dearhorn, not many have. I certainly hadn’t; not until my grandparents dragged me to a charity auction put on by one of their wealthy old person societies.
It was a boring, stuffy affair filled with boring, stuffy people. Grandma and Grandpa made me sit with them in the middle of the gallery floor, afraid that I’d get into trouble if I was allowed out of their sight, and all I had to entertain me was the item booklet that listed each piece that would be up for bidding. There were a lot of large, clunky pieces of furniture with descriptions that included words like “gold leaf inlay” and “heirloom”, paintings of rustic landscapes, and other things that generally hold no interest for a twelve year old boy. It wasn’t how I’d wanted to spend my summer vacation at all, especially not while Mom and Dad were traipsing around Europe.
The auction itself seemed even duller, somehow.
The auctioneer stood behind the podium at the front of the room and read brief snippets of history about each item in an attempt to pique interest and then started listing off pricing. It wasn’t even in the cool, fast paced way I’d seen on TV; just the same, measured tone he’d been using all along.
We’d been there for what felt like an eternity and neither of my grandparents had bid on anything. As the list dwindled, I really started to wonder if this had all been one, big show; just an excuse for them to say they’d attended the charity event without actually donating anything. I was sinking lower and lower in my chair with each passing minute, weighed down by boredom and hunger and grumpiness and the seeming inescableness of it all, and Grandma was only making it worse by poking and nagging at me to sit up and stop wrinkling my suit.
She only left me alone once the phonograph was wheeled out.
According to the auctioneer (or, rather, his cue cards), it was a 1920 model made of oak and nickel plating with a large horn blooming over the record player. The inside of the horn had been painted with flowers, pink and red and green, and a name, but age had faded them into dull ghosts of their former selves.
The phonograph had first belonged to Minnie Dearhorn, the name that appeared in the horn and a struggling starlet of the 1920s, and had vanished after her untimely death at the age of 26. It had been her most prized possession and some speculated her family had taken it as a token of remembrance, but it resurfaced in the 40s at an unrelated person’s estate sale before going to a private collector, where it fell through history’s cracks again. It had only been rediscovered in the basement of a recently deceased doctor’s home in the last year.
A record had miraculously survived along with the phonograph and sat upon the player, the stylus poised above it. The only song on it was Marion Harris’ 1921 rendition of Look For The Silver Lining.
I remember the way Grandma lit up when she saw the thing, how she grabbed Grandpa’s arm and whispered that her own mother had had a similar player when she was growing up. Grandpa’s bid paddle shot up almost immediately and, after a little heated back and forth with another guy, he was awarded the phonograph for a tidy not-so-little sum.
It was delivered two days later and set up on an equally antique table in the front parlor. Grandma sat beside it for a while, her features soft with nostalgia and her fingertips running along the edge of the player.
“Does it work?” I asked from the doorway.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed in the parlor, Grandma just Strongly Preferred that I avoid it.
“Let’s find out,” she said with a warm smile.
She cranked the phonograph and lowered the stylus onto the record. It crackled for a moment, and then grainy music accompanied by a woman’s voice flowed from the horn.
Please don’t be offended if I preach to you awhile, Tears are out of place in eyes that were meant to smile
“Beautiful,” Grandma sighed.
I thought it just sounded old, but she seemed happy, so I kept my mouth shut.
The phonograph’s newness wore off fairly quickly and, soon, it just became part of the parlor collection. There were only so many times that Grandma could listen to Marion Harris croon about silver linings before it played itself out and she could only stare at the thing, thinking fond, childhood thoughts, for so long. Still, she’d glance in sometimes as she passed the room on her way out and a little smile would tug at the corner of her mouth. Grandpa said that alone was worth what they’d spent on it.
The first accident occurred a little over a week after it was brought home.
My grandparents’ housekeeper, Mariska, was over for the weekly clean-up. She was young, maybe in her early twenties, exceptionally good looking, and spoke in a deep, smoky voice laced with an Eastern European accent. I’d make any excuse I could think of just to walk by whatever room she was in. So far that summer, I had been too shy to make eye contact with her, much less speak to her, so I had settled for lurking nearby, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. I doubted she even knew I was alive.
That day, she was dusting and vacuuming the parlor with her usual thoroughness. There wasn’t a surface she couldn’t make sparkle and there wasn’t a stain she couldn’t get out, so I was trying to finally muster up the courage to ask her some cleaning related question in the hopes it would lead to some more casual conversation.
It was the best plan twelve year old me had when it came to talking to a pretty girl.
Before I had to chance to put it into action, she strolled out of the parlor, a basket of cleaning supplies bound for their home in basement in hand. I froze in my corner, my cooly confident greeting lodged in my throat, and could only watch her go further and further down the hall from me, until it would have been too awkward to call after her even if I could have managed to.
At the same time I heard the basement door creak open, a crackling started up in the parlor, followed shortly by music.
Look for the silver lining, Whenever a cloud, appears in the blue, Remember somewhere, the sun is shining, And so the right thing to do, Is make it shine for you, Marion Harris sang from within.
She was interrupted by a short yelp from Mariska and then a series of heavy thuds and the distant clatter of plastic bottles against concrete.
I bolted to the top of the basement stairs and took a few steps down. Mariska was lying face down on the cold cement floor, the basket and cleaning supplies scattered around her. Her head was twisted just a little too far to one side and she was gurgling weakly. I quickly covered the sound with my own screams.
She died in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Everyone said she had tripped. It was unfortunate, sad, upsetting, but mostly for my grandparents if all of the condolence cards and sympathetic phone calls were to be believed. People seemed to think that it was worse that Mariska had had her accident in their house than it was that she’d had her accident at all. Even as a kid, it struck me as being gross behavior and I did my best to avoid my grandparents and their well wishers.
Honestly, I did my best to avoid the situation in its entirety. Seeing Mariska like that at the bottom of the stairs, hearing her last, tortured breaths, was overwhelming and scary and it twisted in my gut. I just didn’t want to think about it at all and I tried to bury it deep in the back of my mind.
I did such a good job of it that I didn’t even remember the odd timing of the phonograph going off as she opened the basement door.
Not until the second accident a few days later, when my cousin, Arielle, stopped by to drop off some misdirected mail.
I met her in the kitchen and we chatted a little about how our summers were going; she was planning a trip to the Bahamas with some college girlfriends, I was stuck at our grandparents’ with absolutely nothing to do and no one to do it with. Neither of us brought up Mariska. After a few jokes about smuggling me to freedom in her luggage, she gave me a good natured pat on the head, promised we’d get together when she got back, and left me to my PB&J sandwich. As the front door closed behind her, the first notes of Look For The Silver Lining drifted out of the parlor.
She got as far as the end of the driveway. A truck, late for a delivery and speeding to make up some time, t-boned her convertible, killing her instantly.
In the chaos and horror that followed, I didn’t give a second thought to the music I’d heard just before her accident.
My parents flew back early from Paris to attend the funeral, where Arielle smiled prettily down at us from the portrait beside her closed casket, and my summer at my grandparents’ came to a close. Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t bear to remain in the house where their eldest grandchild had been killed and they sold it just months later and moved into a condo on the coast. Most of their belongings, including the phonograph, went into storage, where they remained until both passed away over a decade later.
It wasn’t until my dad and I opened up their unit to clear it out that I was reminded of Mariska and Arielle and the song that played immediately before both of their deaths. Seeing the old phonograph sitting in the back corner, hidden beneath a white sheet, triggered long buried memories and grainy, half remembered lyrics about silver linings.
While Dad got to work hauling out boxes, I uncovered the phonograph. It looked exactly as I remembered; the oak base, the nickel plating, even the record was still in place, the stylus sitting above it, waiting to make it sing, and in the horn, the faded flower paintings and the original owner’s name.
I will be the first to admit that accidents happen, that people die young due to unfortunate circumstances and that, sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I will be the first to rally behind logic and reason and all things scientific. I will be the first to look for any rational explanation for why something might happen. But I was also present when two young women experienced almost back to back “accidents” that resulted in their deaths, both while my grandmother’s phonograph played by itself, and I wasn’t sure there was any amount of logic that would effectively explain that away.
The phonograph didn’t make it out of the unit during our first visit; I made sure of it.
Like I said before, I’d never heard of Minnie Dearhorn and, honestly, when I went online and searched for her name, I wasn’t expecting many others would have either. I wasn’t entirely wrong; her fanbase, if it could be called that, was a relatively small one, but they were very dedicated, and very detailed. How much of it was actually true and how much was Internet True is hard to say, but it did seem in line with what had happened after we got her phonograph.
Mildred Nicks, Minnie’s real name, was an aspiring actress in the early 1900s. She had left her home in a poor Midwest farming town and traveled to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer or stage actress. Everyone agreed she had the looks, slender, striking features, large, dark eyes and flowing black hair, but the moment she opened her mouth, everyone also agreed she was a bust. Mildred’s acting was as flat as her singing voice and the only jobs she was offered were low paying background characters or small time modeling gigs.
It wasn’t the life she’d envisioned or wanted and she knew if she wanted things to change, she would have to change first.
To make herself seem more exotic, Mildred became Minnie Dearhorn and started to bill herself as a Native American princess, complete with feathers and beads tied into her hair. It did work, for a time; people were fascinated by this “Indian royal” and she landed a few small roles in silent films to feed into it, but still, no leading parts came her way, and when the next novelty act rolled in, she was all but forgotten.
Minnie was not so easily pushed aside, however. She was a creature of great perseverance and even greater jealousy, and when she saw the way things were going, she lashed out.
A lot of accidents seemed to happen when Minnie was around. One girl up for the same bit part as Minnie fell off of the stage during a group dance number and broke her arm. She claimed Minnie had pushed her, but Minnie denied it and the matter was eventually dropped. The second alleged victim was Minnie’s roommate at their boarding house. She had been complaining to the house matron that Minnie kept her up at night by playing the same song over and over again on her phonograph, making her miss important appointments.
When reprimanded, Minnie supposedly said, “I’ve just been so blue lately, missing my people and my home. Look For The Silver Lining is the only thing that can cheer me up!”
Her roommate drank water with lye in it shortly after, badly burning her throat and requiring her to return to her family for treatment.
Minnie, knowing that her looks were a vital selling point, was exceedingly vain and couldn’t stand competition from more attractive girl. There were rumors that she’d ruined costumes left unattended backstage, that she’d cut other boarder’s hair while they slept, even that she’d “accidentally” pushed a rival into a glass window in the hopes she’d break it and scar her face. She was careful, though, and actually proving that she’d done any of these things was difficult. Minnie just said that the others were jealous and that she would “look for the silver lining” and hope that all of the attention would bring her more roles.
The only attention she got, though, was negative. The other girls hated and avoided Minnie, studios and stages wouldn’t touch her, but still, she kept auditioning, kept trying. She didn’t believe she was the problem; it was everyone else who refused to recognize her talent.
It finally came to an end in 1924, when Minnie made the mistake of targeting Valentina Ciappini. Valentina, like Minnie, was a dark eyed, dark haired beauty, and she had come all the way from New York to audition for a role that Minnie desperately wanted. Minnie was quick to strike up a friendship with Valentina upon her arrival to the boarding house and offered to bring her to the theater the next day.
Predictably, Valentina never made it. Minnie told police that Valentina had tripped and fallen into the road in front of an oncoming car. Those who knew Minnie, however, said she’d probably pushed the poor girl. It was those rumors that made it back to Fernando Ciappini when he arrived in LA to collect his only child’s body.
No one can say for certain what happened to Minnie Dearhorn in the hours leading up to her death. She went missing the same day Fernando Ciappini returned to New York. When her house matron went up to Minnie’s room, she found Marion Harris’ 1921 Look For The Silver Lining playing on Minnie’s phonograph, but no sign of the girl. Everyone she asked claimed not to have seen Minnie since the prior day.
Her badly decomposed body washed up on shore a week later, but very few mourned the passing of Minnie Dearhorn.
All of her things were given to other residents of the boarding house and her phonograph was kept in the living room, but, supposedly, the only record that it would play was Look For The Silver Lining. There were reports of it playing late at night and waking the whole house despite no one having touched it, and then the accidents started.
Girls tripping on the stairs, burning themselves on the stove, cutting themselves, and, in one instance, falling from the third story window on to the wrought iron fence below, and every time one occurred, it was said that Minnie’s phonograph would start playing.
The boarding house gained a dangerous reputation and, in order to stay in business, the house matron finally got rid of the player. Its history gets muddled after that, but some of the more diehard Minnie followers state that the phonograph belonged to a family that lost all of its teenage daughters in a house fire, that it was in the home where a girl asphyxiated from a gas leak, and another where the family dog suddenly turned on its female owner and tore off half of her face before it could be subdued.
If legend was to be believed, almost every young woman who had come into contact with Minnie’s phonograph had suffered a terrible fate to the same soundtrack.
Look for the silver lining, Whenever a cloud, appears in the blue, Remember somewhere, the sun is shining, And so the right thing to do, Is make it shine for you
There really was no silver lining to be found when I returned to the storage unit that night with a baseball bat; nothing I did would bring back Arielle or Mariska or any of the other girls who may or may not have been harmed by that cursed thing. There was no sun shining when I opened its door and uncovered the phonograph. There wasn’t even any music playing when I lifted the bat above my head and brought it down hard, right on the record.
Before this, I doubt you’d heard of Minnie Dearhorn, I certainly hadn’t, and now I hope you never will again.