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Blood and Gingerbread
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George and Jan O’Nale moved to the edge of the Jefferson National Forest outside New Castle in 1980 to pursue their three passions: publishing, pistols and privacy.
Their home, called Blue Healing Springs, provided the seclusion the couple needed to craft their old-world art of printing and hand-binding books. They launched their publishing company, Cheap Street Press, that year at the Baltimore World Fantasy Convention, an annual event begun in 1975 as a gathering place for writers, editors and publishers of the genre.
For more than 20 years, the strange, seclusive bibliophile couple specialized in contemporary fiction and produced works of art in limited editions, many signed. They became renowned for the excellence of their craft, attracting collectors from across the country.
But very few local people knew the O’Nales, the brilliance of their rare art or their reputation in the science fiction community. Around New Castle, they were considered odd because they didn’t socialize and were almost always seen patrolling their property with pistols in their hands.
In fact, what Craig County remembers far better than anything else about the O’Nales happened on May 28, 2003, when the couple – both 56 years old and having prepared for every aspect and aftermath orchestrated their own deaths with all the precision and elegance, albeit macabre, of one of their books. People still talk about the couple who wrote letters to friends – mailed with timing to arrive after their deaths – that “due to failing health, we’re going to take our lives in a quiet and peaceful manner.”
Ellen Horn, one of the owners of the Hunter’s Den, a quaint store on the edge of town says the couple was misunderstood around New Castle.
“They were so different from most folks here,” she says. At a gathering around the store’s stove in spring 2005, most agreed the couple was “bizarre.” But Horn, who was assigned the consignment of the O’Nales’ gun collection before their deaths and in their will, says the couple was just private. She didn’t know Jan, but George gave her the couple’s collection of gun books.
“I think they just didn’t want to live without each other,” says Horn.
A Devotion to Books, Each Other
The story of the O’Nales’ devotion to each other started through the mail when George began buying rare and collectible science fiction books from the then Jan Landau’s mail order business, The Left Hand of Darkness, in Philadelphia. The couple corresponded for three years before meeting at a science fiction convention and then married. And once they were together, their shared interest in science fiction and in books seemed to take on its own life.
A Wikipedia entry characterizes their shared products this way: “Cheap Street concentrated on publishing ‘forced-scarcity’ or ‘artificially rare’ books – signed, numbered limited edition books of science fiction and fantasy works. Their books were renowned as excellent examples of the book-making arts, having been created with elegant, imported silks and bound in leathers with matching slipcases. Their books were typically issued in editions of 50 to 200 copies, and sold for up to $250 each. They approached primarily only authors who they identified for excellence in writing quality.”
But their love of science fiction and fantasy books was only one of many things the couple had in common. Both were 34 when they married, had never been married before and had no children. They also enjoyed guns and target shooting. Jan owned six guns; George had seven. They did everything together – up to and including dying – and they didn’t miss a detail.
George, a journalist, was employed at a printing company before moving to New Castle, where he began a 20-year career as a psychiatric aide at Catawba Hospital. In his after-work hours, he was setting type and running proofs on his Vandercook SP-15 press in their shop.
Jan, an engineer by trade, was a full partner at Cheap Street Press and continued her mail order business from home. They traveled to science fiction and fantasy conventions to promote their books until unspecified health issues invaded their lifestyle of solitude.
It was apparently then that the O’Nales began preparing for their departure, first by retiring their press and searching for a university to take their collection, a step taken via an internet announcement in October 2001.
Going by the book, the O’Nales drafted their wills together months before their deaths and had them notarized on May 8, 2003. Their requests and finely detailed instructions are a fascinating read with many sentences including the phrase “in the event that my wife (husband) and I die simultaneously.”
They chose Thomas Aquinas Travers of Benicia, Cal., a childhood friend of George, to be their executor, with Joel Martin Landau, Jan’s brother, as a backup for Travers. Just in case something happened to their plan and one of them didn’t die, they of course chose each other as beneficiaries.
The will continues, “in the event that my wife (husband) shall not survive me, or shall die simultaneously with me or there is no direct evidence to establish that my wife (husband) and I died other than simultaneously, I direct that I shall be deemed to have predeceased my wife (husband), notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, and that the provisions of my will shall be construed on such presumption.”
Travers and Landau were the equal heirs of the O’Nales’ estates, excluding the gifts the couple bequeathed to friends.
Moving Toward Death
After purchasing the supplies for their suicides – including plastic bags, rubber tubing and tanks of gas meant for party balloons – the O’Nales met with Eddie Kendall of Kendall Funeral Home in Pembroke on April 22, 2003 and gave him notarized “designee agreements” to handle their cremation and the scattering of their ashes in any woodland near or around Pembroke.
They arranged for “direct cremation without any ceremony, service, memorial or any additional items not already arranged and paid for,” according to their wills.
Copies of the designee agreements were given to Travers and Landau. “My specific wishes in regards to body disposition and all other funeral-related issues are to be followed exactly with no additions or changes,” both wills stated.
Although the couple died after the April 15 tax deadline, they did not neglect Uncle Sam in their plan. The O’Nales chose Jim Taney and Lee Ann Hodges of Anderson and Reed, CPAs in Roanoke, to prepare their federal and state returns and gave their powers of attorney for their 2002 and 2003 returns.
Cheap Street Press’ printing equipment was museum quality and expansive. In addition to their proofing press, the O’Nales had four wooden typestands with 75 drawers of various type, wooden printers’ furniture, a metal cabinet with 50 type galleys, two dingbat cabinets with 60 plastic drawers, 27 plastic bins of spacing, a Foster galley cabinet on wheels with 60 galley trays of various type, paper, rollers and ink. Rick Newell was the heir to this collection and was given access to remove the equipment prior to the sale of the O’Nales real estate.
Other items were boxed up, labeled and put into storage for friends. The couple sent letters to the recipients, saying goodbye with instructions to retrieve the gifts. They also sent a letter to Billy McPherson, who has since retired as Craig County Sheriff , again timing the letter so that he would know what they planned after it had been carried out, and giving him a key to their back door so he could find their bodies. They even labeled their back door so he would not confuse it with the door to their laundry room.
The O’Nales departed as dear soul mates, closing a chapter of the private press begun by William Morris in 1890 that only a handful of publishers worldwide continue in today’s electronic age. They hooked tubing up to the helium tanks and ran it into bags they placed over their heads which were secured tightly to prevent oxygen from entering. With the air conditioner humming and colorful lights strung up around the room, they died peacefully beside each other in their bed covered with a blanket.