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  • Writer's pictureTayden Bundy

Solving the Villisca Ax Murder Mystery: Using Paranormal Evidence to Uncover the Truth

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Credit Kevin Schmid

Why do we conduct paranormal investigations? Why do we sit for hours, in the dark, asking questions in a seemingly empty and silent room? Why do we spend money on equipment, travel, and overnight stays in haunted locations? Why do we spend so much time trying to contact the dead?

These are some of the questions many paranormal researchers ponder over. When we obtain evidence, we must decide what to do with it next. Most share the voices they catch on recorders, shadows they see on video, or feelings they had when they entered a room. But what happens afterward?

Ileata Kenley, author of To Pay the Piper: The Real Axe Man, used evidence she obtained during a paranormal investigation to attempt to uncover the murderer involved in one of the most horrific unsolved acts of violence in history. With over three decades of practice and research in the paranormal field, along with a gut feeling, Kenley searched for historical significance related to a voice she heard during a paranormal investigation at Malvern Manor.

Malvern Manor - Sarah Stream Photography

Before making the trip to stay overnight at Malvern Manor, Kenley watched an episode of “Paranormal Lockdown” with special guest Johnny Houser. Houser shared his experience at Malvern Manor as being negative in nature. The aggressive spirit Houser encountered ignited Kenley’s curiosity to search for a connection. Houser is the tour guide and caretaker at the Villisca Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa. Believing there must be a reason for Houser’s experience, Kenley managed to link Malvern and Villisca through a man named Ralph Piper, who had ties to Villisca and was a previous owner of Malvern Manor when the building was then called the Piper Hotel in the 1940s. Through the discovery of Ralph Piper, Kenley was able to construct a new theory about who may have killed the Moore family in Villisca in 1912.

Paranormal Investigation at Malvern Manor
Sarah Stream Photography

By the time Kenley and her family visited Malvern Manor in July of 2017, she had researched Ralph Piper and his family. During the investigation, Kenley believed she felt the presence of Ralph and his girlfriend Cuba Cox in various parts of the old hotel. Before leaving for the night, Kenley made sure to ask a single question she believes gave her the answer she was searching for. She asked if Ralph Piper knew who killed the Moore family in Villisca and she received a strong and resounding, “Yes.”

Why do we talk to the dead? Kenley answered that question with her book by tackling one of the most heinous and talked-about crimes in history. We talk to the dead to help them. We talk to the dead to uncover the past. We talk to the dead to solve mysteries burdened with going cold over time. Kenley believes she has found the people involved in the murder of the Moore family and she presents her findings in her book.

For background on the crime, read the history section of my earlier blog post about my paranormal investigation of the Villisca Ax Murder House here: Villisca Ax Murder House

Although no one was ever convicted of the murders that occurred in the Moore family home, several people were questioned as suspects and one was tried in court. Today, historians generally attest to two main suspects and possibly a serial killer who targeted railroad towns. One of the two main suspects was a prominent Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator Frank F. Jones who may have hired someone else to commit the crime. The second main suspect was a traveling preacher named Reverend George Kelly. Jones was never tried in court, but Reverend Kelly was tried twice. The first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second an acquittal. The third possibility was someone else completely unrelated to the town of Villisca who was traveling around the United States killing families in the same manner.

Kenley presented a fourth possibility, mixing the wealth and status of Jones and his ability to hire someone to commit the crime along with the links to the traveling serial killer. She believes the man who killed the Moore family and the Stillinger girls was hired by Jones and most likely was also responsible for some, if not all, of the ax murders that occurred throughout the country between 1911 and 1912.

Although Kenley leans on historical documentation from books, newspaper articles, historians, and census records, she held strong to the paranormal evidence she had obtained, both through personal experience and through others. She points out that she is an avid follower and believer of Amy Allen, a psychic medium who stars on the show “Dead Files” along with her partner Steve DiSchiavi, a retired homicide detective. During an episode of the show at the Villisca Ax Murder House, Allen senses more than one killer was involved and that Sarah Moore and the Stillinger girls knew at least one of the killers. These pieces of information are important because Kenley used them to form her theory about who committed the murders.

Kenley presented her book in a way in which she talks about how she first considered exploring a connection between two known haunted locations and then goes into detail about why and how the people she believes are involved went about constructing a plan and committing the crime. Towards the end of her book, she includes further information related to the possibility of a connection with several other similar ax murders committed around the United States. Reading about another possible suspect, who Kenley believes is the man, was a fresh and interesting new perspective on the crimes. She poses several questions, all of which need serious consideration. Most importantly, she manages to convincingly connect paranormal evidence to historical documentation.

I commend her ability to take an unsolved crime, utilize evidence collected through research and information obtained through a paranormal investigation to attempt to uncover the truth. She presents compelling evidence linking a family to the crimes by placing them in Villisca at the time of the murders, their association with a respected town member, and by going even farther to pinpoint exact locations that coincide with other ax murders.

I believe her approach to using paranormal evidence along with historical research shows initiative in the development of the paranormal field. By using what is discovered in haunted locations, there is a greater chance of verifying the importance of the field while also progressing toward a much richer understanding of how the past can provide answers to unsolved questions of the present.


Do you want to find out who Ileata Kenley believes committed one of the most horrific crimes in history? Purchase a copy of her book at To Pay The Piper: The real Axe Man: Kenley, Ileata, Valentino, Mike: 9780578210988: AmazonSmile: Books


Want more ghost stories?

Check out Beyond Lincoln: A History of Nebraska Hauntings at


Works Cited

Kenley, Ileata. To Pay The Piper: The Real Axe Man. Bower, 2019.


Photos courtesy of Sarah Stream Photography

Check out Sarah Stream Photography @


The author:

Tayden Bundy

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