Love, murder, and the great Hindoo manhunt of 1913

The story of Said Khan, the “thuggee” murderer

San Francisco Call, October 6, 1913, page 1

I’ve been grappling with the story of Said Ali Khan, trying to make meaning of it.

In 1913, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Said Ali Khan strangled and murdered Rosa Domingo, an 18 year old Portuguese woman he was involved with.

He weighted down her body with iron and threw it into the San Francisco Bay.

It was all over the news. I found 20 stories about the case in the San Francisco Call alone.

The stories described Khan as a mystic and hypnotist, who used “thuggee” techniques.

Khan was Punjabi, 27 years old at the time of his arrest. He had a wife and mother back in India.

He and Domingo met while working together at the Metropolitan Match Factory near Richmond, California. He would have Charles E. Riley, Domingo’s “former sweetheart,” write letters to Rosa Domingo on his behalf.

Rosa said that she was afraid Khan would kill her if she didn’t marry him.

Khan told people that he’d spent $750 on her, that she demanded money from him.

He told people his patience was wearing thin after he asked her to live with him, and she said no.

So he strangled her with his necktie as she slept.

And then he escaped.

Police looked for Khan, searching through South Asian communities across the East Bay, San Francisco, and Peninsula. South Asian students at UC Berkeley were asked about him, but they had no idea who he was. Khan’s roommate Musa Khan was arrested, but eventually released without a charge.

Said Ali Khan escaped south, trying to get to Mexico. After a 9 day manhunt, he was arrested in Calexico, near San Diego.

Khan made a full confession, and then recanted. There were threats of lynching, but the trial went ahead.

He pled guilty. And in the end, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at San Quentin.

San Francisco Call, October 6, 1913, page 1

When I think about Said Ali Khan, I think about masculinity. And I think about violence against women.

I think about Rosa, an 18 year old Portuguese woman working at the match factory, and what it must have been like for her to face a violent stalker.

I think about Charles Riley, Rosa’s ex, who helped Said woo her, and eventually, dispose of her body.

I think about the complicated friendships people built out West.

I think about Khan’s wife and mother back home. And all the circumstances that led him to find himself at the match factory, right outside of Richmond, California.

I think about how we were all racialized as “Hindoo” back then, just as we’re all racialized as “Muslim” today.

And I think about all the stereotypes that kept coming up—the Hindoo hypnotist, the Hindoo mystic, the Hindoo thug.

I think about policing, and I think about prison, and what it would have felt like for Said Ali Khan as he faced the prospect of life behind bars at San Quentin.

He wasn’t the first. The first South Asian was imprisoned at San Quentin eight years before — K.P.R. Singh, convicted of robbery in 1910.

And there would be more to come. Said Ali Khan would probably meet Tara Singh and Jamil Singh, two South Asian men from Sacramento, both imprisoned in San Quentin in 1918 for being the wrong kind of men — the kind of men who have interracial sex with other men.

I want to be able to take these stories, wrap them up with a neat little bow, and maybe share them on a walking tour. But sometimes, it’s hard.


I relied heavily on free sources available from the amazing California Digital Newspaper Collection, and particularly from roughly twenty stories in the San Francisco Call, which I later cross-checked with a few stories in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Nayan Shah wrote about this case in Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West, using a much wider array of sources, and giving helpful context.