Unspeakable Times

Corazon Amurao Was The Sole Survivor Of A Massacre, And Put The Killer Behind Bars  

Jodi Smith
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In the annals of Chicago crime, perhaps no event matches the sheer brutality and terror of the case of Richard Speck. In the summer of 1966, Speck murdered eight nurses in one townhouse over the course of a single night. But those eight murders could easily have been nine. During the chaos of the one-by-one executions, one nurse found a hiding spot and waited out the remainder of the attack. The survivor's name was Corazon Amurao.

After answering Speck's knock on the door of the shared residence, Amurao was bound with strips of fabric, as were her fellow housemates. But she managed to find an opportune moment to hide under a bed - and remained there while Speck finished off the rest of her roommates. After the massacre was finally over, she emerged from hiding and made her escape. She went on to positively identify Speck during his murder trial, at which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.

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Photo: Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Amurao Came From A Small Village In The Philippines

Born in the 1940s, Amurao grew up in the small province of Batangas, near Manila in the Philippines. One of eight siblings, Amurao spoke Tagalog before beginning to learn English at school in first grade. Her educational path eventually led her to nursing. She graduated from Far Eastern University in Manila, then worked for two years before applying for and starting a position at an American hospital in 1966.

With a population of around 200 people, her village was a small one. But despite the modest size of her hometown and her own 4-foot-10-inch frame, she was, as LIFE magazine wrote, "not easily intimidated."

Batangas is known for, among other products, the balisong, a folding knife whose blade can be hidden in its dual handles. It was this very weapon that Amurai herself referenced when asked about her unlikely survival:

You are surprised I survived? But I come from the place where they make balisong. Why should you be surprised?

According to the dean at her nursing school, Amurao's resilience was no fluke. "She could adjust easily... She was calm, and she had a good presence of mind."

At The Time Of The Murders, She'd Only Been In The US For A Few Months

Amurao arrived in the US from her home in the Philippines on May 9, 1966, to take a position as a staff nurse at the South Chicago Community Hospital. She lived in a townhouse with eight other women finishing out their senior years at the hospital's nursing school. She spent her time working shifts and making friends with her roommates.

Amurao recalled her two months of living with the other women in an email to William Martin, the former state attorney in the Speck case: 

When Merlita (Gargullo) cooked adobo filipino and pancit and they came home from the hospital and smelled the food and they say "it's good" so we invited them to join us to eat, and they really like it. That was a good time that we had.

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Photo:  Dallas Police Department/Fair Use
Amurao Answered Richard Speck's Knock At The Door

After working a shift at the South Chicago Community Hospital on July 13, 1966, Amurao took a shuttle back to the townhouse she shared with her fellow nurses. She followed her normal routine, washing clothes and writing letters to her family back in the Philippines. At 10:30 pm, she decided to head to bed in the room she shared with Merlita Gargullo. Thirty minutes later, Speck broke into the building through a window - unbeknownst to Amurao and her eight roommates.

With a .22 pistol and hunting knife in hand, Speck made his way upstairs to the bedrooms. He calmly knocked on Amurao's bedroom door. When she answered, Speck proceeded to round up the women from each of the rooms, setting into motion a long, gruesome night.

She Initially Hid In A Closet With Two Other Women Before Being Lured Out

According to Amurao, the American women in the townhouse didn't think Speck had violent intentions because of his calm demeanor. After answering Speck's knock at her door, Amurao nonetheless retreated to a closet to hide with fellow Filipino nurses Merlita Gargullo and Valentina Pasion. The trio was eventually coaxed out by another housemate, who convinced them to stay calm in Speck's presence in order to ensure their safety.

The other nurses assured Gargullo, Pasion, and Amurao that the man just wanted cash to get to New Orleans. They believed they would all be safe after he had the money. Instead, Speck tied all of the women up with strips of bedsheets.