Corazon Amurao: The Filipino Nurse Who Survived a Massacre and Put a Mass Murderer Behind Bars
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
"You are surprised I survived? But I come from the place where they make balisong. Why should you be surprised?"
On the chilly evening of July 13, 1966, unbeknownst to her, Corazon Amurao would be the lone survivor out of nine nurses who murderer Richard Speck brutally slaughtered during the South Chicago Community Hospital Massacre. After quietly trespassing on the home, Speck calmly knocked four times on Amurao’s bedroom door. When she answered, he proceeded to round up the nurses from each of their rooms, leading them one by one to separate rooms in the townhouse where eight nurses met their tragic end.
Only Amurao escaped that night alive.
Exemplifying great courage and strength, we navigate through the story of Corazon Amurao on the night of the South Chicago Massacre. This is her brave and heroic story of survival.
Those who knew Corazon best found it to be no surprise that she survived the gruesome South Chicago Massacre in ‘66. As a born and raised Batangeño, she boasts Batangas as the land of the balisong–a double-handled folding pocket knife, such that its blades, when enclosed, are concealed within the grooves of its handles. Being one of eight children, Corazon was the hardest-working student in school, often praised for her grit and ability to adapt quickly to new and difficult situations. Despite her petite 4’11 frame, she wasn’t easily intimidated. In fact, she stood with pride and strength. She ended up studying at Far Eastern University in Manila, where she pursued a career in Nursing. After graduating, Corazon worked for two years in the Philippines before applying to work in the United States.
“She could adjust easily,” the dean of her nursing school said. “She was calm, and she had a good presence of mind.”
Corazon Amurao was a visiting exchange nurse from the Philippines who, along with two other Filipino nurses, Valentina Pasion and Merlita Gargullo, came to the United States to work. The wave of Filipino exchange nurses who went to the U.S. during the '60s was particularly pivotal in relieving in that it helped relieve the staff shortage in the U.S. healthcare system at the time., And so the trio decided to pursue careers in Chicago to earn decent wages, where they sent much of it back to their families–a practice that OFWs continue to this day. Despite being 8,000 miles away from home in their little townhouse in South Chicago, Amurao and her colleagues would often write heartfelt letters about the American experience and culture to their families back in the Philippines. Whenever they could cook and spend meals together, they would remedy the occasional homesickness with the classic adobo paired with rice or some rich pansit to manifest a long and healthy life.
It was a normal day in mid-July. After working a shift at the South Chicago Community Hospital, Amurao took a shuttle back to the townhouse she shared with eight of her fellow nurses. After following her usual routine of washing her 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. Though their everyday lives were composed of early mornings, tiresome shifts, and late-night shuttles, Amurao would recall these mundanities peaceful. Lives that held meaning.
However, that peace would soon be disrupted on the evening of July 13, 1966, when she came face to face with Richard Benjamin Speck.
Speck was born in Kirkwood, Illinois. Like Corazon, he was one of eight children and was born into a large, religious family. It’s safe to say that Speck’s childhood was not all rainbows and butterflies; it was his early introduction to violence, alcohol abuse, and juvenile delinquency, which would soon lead him to a life of crime.
Before Speck committed the horrifying mass murders of the eight student nurses in South Chicago, he was responsible for acts of violence against his family, which was the cause of his wife’s filing for their divorce in 1966. In the same year, Speck had been linked to a significant amount of horrifying crimes; crimes whose victims were mostly women who were either robbed, raped, or ruthlessly murdered. However, Speck seemed to have the devil’s luck on his side. Despite his multiple connections to the scenes, Speck was never charged with any of the murders of which he was suspected, cases that remain unsolved even to this day. Either that or federal incompetence, Speck always found a way to deflect police questioning, escaping each time–that is, until his luck ran out in the vicious case of the South Chicago massacre.
When Richard Speck broke into their home, he came in sheep's clothing disguised under false pretenses of soliciting help. Corazon Amurao was the first in the house to see Speck when she opened her bedroom door to a knock.
“The knocking was done in a normal manner,” she would later testify at trial.
Armed with a .22-caliber pistol and a hunting knife, Speck’s towering figure and pockmarked face greeted Amurao and her colleagues with swift hostility as forced his way into the nurses’ bedrooms at gunpoint. Speck caught the nine unsuspecting victims of the South Chicago Community Hospital Massacre off-guard before he pounced like a wolf in the night.
Speck held Amurao and Gargullo hostage. The women watched helplessly as Speck cut strips of fabric from their bedsheets, which he would later use to bind Amurao, Gargullo, Pasion, and Patricia Matusek, Pamela Wilkening, and Nina Schmale, the other three American nurses who’d been sleeping at the time of Speck’s arrival.
Speck proceeded to round up the nurses from each of their rooms and ordered them to empty their purses before tying them up. The three women, Gloria Davy, Mary Jordan, and Suzanne Faris, who were fortunate enough to be out during Speck’s preparation for the massacre would later face the same brutal fate once they arrived home at the townhouse. What would’ve been an exhausting day’s comfort and rest, instead set in motion what we can only imagine as the most brutal and horrific four and a half hours of those nurses’ short lives.
It seemed to be that Speck was a little disoriented. Apparently, he drank heavily at several Chicago bars before breaking into the nurses’ townhouse. In a window of opportunity, Amurao and Gargullo had a chance to discreetly work at loosening their hands from the ties, giving them a brief moment to hide.
When Merlita Gargullo, Corazon Amurao, and Valentina Pasion had the chance to break free, they hid in a small bedroom close to where they heard their colleagues’ muffled pleas and cries for help echoing within the apartment dormitory. In a moment of deceit, they heard Speck reasoning that he only needed money to go to New Orleans, convincing the nurses who had just arrived back from the hospital to help him. A female voice urged Gargullo, Amurao, and Pasion to come out. “He is not going to harm you,” the faint voice said.
They opened the door. Once he led one nurse out from the room and closed the door, that was when Corazon knew–this man had come to kill them. And only Corazon would survive. In an unimaginable night of horror, eight nurses were robbed, beat, strangled, and stabbed during Speck’s murder spree.
Due to the high body count and Speck’s drunken state, he failed to notice that Amurao, who had opened the door for him on his arrival, had managed to hide under one of the beds while Speck was out of the room. She hid one bed after another, moving room to room seeing the other women’s still bodies. As if in a horror movie, Amurao witnessed the gruesome death of her colleagues. Hoping to bank on his luck one last time, Speck left the scene sometime past 3 a.m.
Amurao hid under the beds hours after Speck left to make sure he was gone. When she crawled out, she was greeted by a sickening scene, the kind you thought you’d only see in horror movies. What once was the American dream is now a conjured nightmare of her reality.
At around 6 a.m., Amurao climbed up to an upstairs window, screaming for help: “They are all dead! My friends are all dead! Oh, God, I’m the only one alive!”
“Before July 13th of 1966, who ever would have thought that one man, ostensibly an intruder who only wanted money to go to New Orleans, and smiled, and said repeatedly he wasn't going to hurt anyone, was capable of stabbing and strangling these eight young women?”, said Bill Martin, who was the chief prosecutor (now, assistant district attorney) for the Cook County state attorney's office at the time of Speck's prosecution.
The transcript of Speck's trial:
Interrogator: "How long did you scream, in a sitting position, with the window open?"
Amurao: "I screamed there for about five minutes and nothing."
Interrogator: "What did you do then?"
Amurao: "Then I jump (sic) off to the ledge."
Interrogator: "You climbed down to the ledge on 100th Street?"
Interrogator: "What did you do on the ledge?"
Amurao: "Then I screamed for help. I screamed for about 20 minutes."
Two days after the murders, Speck attempted suicide by slashing his wrists at a nearby hotel. At the last minute, he changed his mind and was then admitted to Cook County Hospital. The doctor attending to Speck notified authorities of his confinement when they saw his “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo, a distinct feature possessed by the murderer as described by Amurao to the police. Speck was arrested and taken into custody. During his surgery, dozens of policemen watched over him to ensure he no longer had any means to escape. Amurao was later notified by the authorities to identify Speck, and as soon as she saw Speck on the bed, she was firm that this was the man who killed her colleagues.
Despite the doctor’s fear that Amurao would “lapse into psychosis” if asked about the murders, she boldly testified at Speck’s trial. She put on a show-stopping performance when she stood fearlessly, inches away from Speck, and firmly claimed, “This is the man,” the man who had killed her friends.
On the other side of the coin, Speck was diagnosed by a panel of psychiatrists as a sociopath but was found competent to stand for the 12-day trial.
Amurao was the star witness to this case.
The native Batangeña headlined newspapers as the Filipino nurse who testified boldly against the mass murderer, Richard Speck. She gave a concrete recount of the night of the murders, was unwavering in every detail, and left no ounce of truth reserved. With Amurao’s firm identification and Speck’s fingerprints left on the scene, on April 15, the jury unequivocally found Speck guilty of all eight murders. The judge sentenced Speck to death–a feat that would’ve been impossible if not for the fearlessness and emotional fortitude of Corazon Amurao.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment, commuting Speck’s death sentence instead to a maximum of 1,200 years in prison–50 to 150 years in prison for each nurse slain.
Speck spent the rest of his life at the Stateville Correctional Center, one of America’s most dangerous prisons, and died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 49. No one showed up to claim his body.
Five years after Speck’s death, a video of him surfaced in public, causing a major scandal within the Illinois Department of Connections. Appearing to have developed breasts, reportedly as a result of receiving hormone treatment in prison from smuggled goods or contraband, Speck was seen taking drugs and engaging in sex with another inmate. In the video, he casually admits to killing the nurses, bragging about how much it required great strength while describing the gruesome murders in detail.
When asked why he killed those nurses, he responded, “It just wasn’t their night.” And if that wasn’t disturbing enough, his next answer might scare the bejesus out of you. Asked how he felt about the murders after all these years, he said, “Like I always felt... had no feeling. If you're asking me if I felt sorry, no.”
"This case, in a sense, defined an era," said Martin.
During the ‘60s, leaving doors and windows unlocked in the evening was a common practice in America. However, after the massacre, the time was later defined as “the end of American innocence”.
He continues, "I remember the courage and integrity of Corazon Amurao… She told the police the day of the murders, ‘I want to do everything I can to help, I really want to help.’
"She lived that out for nine months, between the time of the murders and the time she electrified the world by walking from the witness box to a couple inches from Speck, where she raised her finger and pointed directly at him and said, ‘This is the man.’”
"She's just a remarkable person."
Not long after, Corazon Amurao went home to the Philippines and married lawyer Alberto Atienza. Eventually, she and her family moved back to the U.S. in Washington, DC where she spent most of her time until retirement serving as a nurse at the Georgetown University Hospital. Now, 79, Amurao is now a grandmother, and reportedly still keeps in touch with the victims’ families from time to time.
Surviving a massacre is something you never quite forget. In spite of the atrocities she experienced, it is admirable to see that Amurao dedicated a huge chunk of her life to saving people, helping in any way that she can. Even so that she appreciates everyday life and perseveres. She chose to overcome.
Today, Amurao is remembered by many because of her courage and wits. Her story is celebrated because she survived, but it’s also important to note that it’s celebrated because it’s rare. For many, Corazon Amurao became a poster child for massacre survivors. She was a beaming icon of hope, a representation of hard-working OFWs who sought a better life abroad, and though she paved the way for justice, Corazon Amurao was also just an unfortunate victim of American violence who was lucky enough to live another day to tell her story.
Today, the townhouses on East 100th Street are still standing and occupied, but no longer by student nurses. The South Chicago Community Hospital is now called Advocate Trinity.
Despite her brave story, it’s upsetting to think that Corazon Amurao should have never had to testify in the first place. Her colleagues never should’ve been murdered, and she should have never lived through such a traumatic experience. And it’s unfortunate to see how violence, random massacres, and serial killers have slowly entrenched their way into the very fabric of American culture and reputation.
The South Chicago Massacre, for most Filipinos, is an unfamiliar tale. Though for folks who were of age in the ‘60s, the massacre marked the end of American innocence. In the end, you can’t help but think: Would Gargullo and Pasion still be alive today if they never left to pursue work in the United States? Miles away from home for a better life, decent compensation, and fruitful opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have in the Philippines?
The fallen nurses had their whole lives ahead of them. Gone too soon, too fast. Gargullo was charming, a lady who was as beautiful as her rich singing voice. The first person from her little village of Mindoro to step foot in America. Pasion lived her life to the fullest–she was a kind and intelligent woman, and by the nurses’ testimonies, a skilled cook. And that’s how I’d like to remember them. Not as Speck’s victims, not just one of the “slain eight”, but first and foremost, formidable and strong Filipino women who died in the line of service.
And as for Amurao? She is one hell of a woman.
Biography. (2020, July 14). Richard Speck. Retrieved from Biography.com.
Deseret News. (1991, July 14). Nightmare of Speck’s grisly crime is still alive. Retrieved from Deseret News.
History. (2009, November 13). A mass murderer leaves eight women dead. Retrieved from History.com.
Rsmartinpev. (2018, April 10). Nurse firm in identifying Speck as killer. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
Siemaszko, C. (2016, July 13). How Richard Speck's Rampage 50 Years Ago Changed a Nation. Retrieved from NBC News.
Sobol, R. (2016, June 14). Rare photos, interviews honor 8 nurses slain by Richard Speck in 1966. Retrieved from the Chicago Tribune.
Sobol, R. (2016, April 15). Richard Speck attack survivor: 'Somebody up there was hiding me from him'. Retrieved from the Chicago Tribune.