The first South Asian to die at San Quentin Prison?

Babu Bheem Roy’s terrible crime in 1910s California — and the survivor who took him on

Babu Bheem Roy was born in Gorakhpur, India in 1869, passed through England, and immigrated to the United States at age 20, in 1889.

Over the next quarter century, he would marry an Irish woman, become a single father, work as a traveling preacher lecturing on India, marry again, get arrested for incest, and die in a California prison.

Building family and surviving tragedy

Babu Bheem Roy started his new life in America in New York and Boston. And it might have been in Boston where he met his wife “Nellie,” an Irish immigrant named Helena M. Spillane. They were married in 1895 at Boston Cathedral, when they were both 26 years old. On the marriage certificate, he was listed as a teacher, she a housekeeper. Both were listed as “White,” though interracial marriage was legal in Massachusetts at the time.

The Roys had two daughters while living in Massachusetts. The elder, Sobharati Hanora, was born in 1895, six months after her parents’ marriage, and may have been named for Roy’s mother. The younger, Ipanniah Josephine, was born in 1897.

Babu became a U.S. citizen in 1896, and immediately applied for a passport. He, Helena, and Sobharati traveled to Europe for a brief trip that spring. A year later, we see a second trip, with records showing Nellie returning from Ireland, the two girls in tow.

And then tragedy struck. Nellie died after a lingering illness in 1899, leaving Babu Bheem Roy a single father of two girls.

Nellie Roy died in South Carolina in 1899*

Babu Bheem Roy, traveling Christian preacher

Born Hindu, Babu Bheem Roy converted to Christianity after meeting an Indian Christian studying in Pennsylvania. He would later tell audiences that when his Christian friend returned to India, word of the conversion reached his father, who subsequently rejected his son and cut him off from his annuity and inheritance. (Was this one of the many tall tales he’d tell through his life?) Roy was baptized into the Calvary Baptist Church of New York, started studying for the ministry at Colgate University, was likely married in a Catholic church, and attended a Unitarian church.

By 1900, he had found a new career as a traveling lecturer speaking about India, Hinduism, and Christianity. We see items about his talks in newspapers across the country from 1900–1907, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Vermont. In the 1910 census, he was still listing his occupation as “lecturer on India.”

Roy’s audiences heard a rich and obviously exaggerated biography: child marriage, predictions of an Indian astrologer, working as an officer in the “native army,” studying at Oxford, graduating from three universities, a correspondence with Kipling. He was interviewed about his views on India in the Washington Post, and sometimes even played his original Indian music on the cornet.

But unlike some traveling preachers on India, Roy’s talks didn’t frame Hindus as uncivilized. We get a sense of his themes from the titles of his talks:

Babu Bheem Roy was almost uniformly lauded in almost every newspaper account. (There were, however, a handful of exceptions. For example, a Detroit paper described the “merriment, blushes, and consternation” caused by his use of an “analogy between the human and animal species.”)

Babu Bheem Roy’s talks often showed up in local newspapers*

A second marriage falls apart — after his “cruel and inhuman treatment”

Mrs. Roy escaped after “cruel and inhuman treatment” *

Babu Bheem Roy remarried around 1904, this time to a young White woman of about 20, who grew up in Springfield, Missouri. But she left him shortly thereafter, while they were doing traveling evangelical work in Wayland, Iowa.

The Mount Pleasant Daily News reported that she returned to Missouri, after receiving cruel and inhuman treatment.

An Iowa pastor warned other pastors to avoid letting the traveling speaker preach, as he was a “mean rascal” with a “second wife whom he mistreats and leaves her here. She is a lady of 20 years and a white woman whose people live at Springfield, Mo.” Roy subsequently moved to Encenitas, California, and by 1906, was attempting to start divorce proceedings.

Sobharati’s story, and Babu Bheem Roy’s crime

Babu Bheem Roy eventually settled down in San Diego, California, maybe around the time that his national lecture tours started to dry up. California was good to him; the San Diego Union, for example, reported that he was involved in a property transaction in April 1910.

The 1910 census is the last good look we have at the Roy family. Babu was 41 years old, a widower, living in San Diego, with his occupation listed as as a lecturer on India. He was living with his two daughters, Sobharati, 14, and Ipanniah, 13, at 4043 G Street in San Diego, in the present-day East Village. A subsequent voter registration showed Roy, a Democrat and a musician, in Santa Ana’s South Lyon Street.

And then in 1914, Babu Bheem Roy was arrested for incest in San Diego County. On June 25, 1914, the San Diego Union reported on the court case (bolding mine):

Babu B. Roy, charged with a statutory crime against his 15-year-old daughter, Savarati Roy, went to trial before a jury in Judge Lewis’ court yesterday.

The offenses are alleged to have been committed during the year 1911 and since that time.

The second count in the complaint, that of rape, was dismissed yesterday and Roy is being tried on his own count, that of assaulting his own daughter.

The end of the article is devastating:

The girl was the principal witness and her testimony was particularly damaging. Her sister, Ispania Roy, was also called for the prosecution, but she testified that she knew nothing about the treatment of her sister.

Sobharati (or “Savarati”) Roy, grew up as a mixed-race South Asian American woman, the oldest of two sisters. She survived three years of sexual assault at the hands of her only parent. And, like many survivors of incest, she may have tried to protect her younger sister, who grew up unaware of the assaults taking place in her home.

Sobharati was an incredibly brave 15-year-old. She went to court, testified about the assault, and persevered in the face of a court that would dismiss the charge of rape.

Death at San Quentin

In July 1914, Babu Bheem Roy was found guilty of incest, and sentenced to five years at San Quentin State Prison. Roy, however, insisted that he was innocent, telling the media that he had been framed, that it was actually someone at his daughter’s workplace who had assaulted her, that his lawyers had robbed him of his property, and that he was suffering from tuberculosis. His appeal was denied.

We don’t know much about Babu Bheem Roy’s life at San Quentin, but he wasn’t alone; there were South Asians imprisoned at San Quentin as early as 1910, and the numbers kept growing over the course of the decade.

Babu Bheem Roy died at San Quentin on February 12, 1917, less than three years into his five-year sentence. He was 45. The cause of death is unclear, though perhaps it was related to illness. He was buried at San Quentin Prison Cemetery.

Sobharati and Ipanniah, after Babu Bheem Roy’s death

In June 1914, shortly after her father’s arrest, Ipanniah Roy graduated from intermediate (middle) school in Santa Ana. Ipanniah Roy stayed on in California. She attended San Diego State College, and lived by herself after school. Ipanniah eventually married, and died in San Diego in 1981, when she was 84.

And Sobharati? The only trace of her that I could find is the 1920 census. Sobharati Roy is listed as a single woman renting in San Diego, working as a domestic, racially categorized as “Hindu,” living by herself, the head of her own household.

I’ve told this story through the lens of Babu Bheem Roy. After all, he’s the one with all the newspaper coverage, the interracial marriages, the colorful lecture tours, and imprisonment and death at San Quentin. And yet, this is also Sobharati’s story.

We know so little about Sobharati Roy, but there’s something impactful in the glimpses we see of the mixed-race “Hindu” woman, the survivor, the brave teenage Desi truth-teller. I don’t know what the rest of her life was like, but that final glimpse of her in the 1920 census gives me hope: working, living by herself, free of her father, and the head of her own household.

Part of the last record I found of Sobharati Roy, living by herself in San Diego, working as a domestic, racially categorized as “Hindu” in the 1920 census*


This story was pieced together from records found on the LDS Church’s, the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, the California Digital Newspaper Collection,,, ProQuest, and Google Books, with a little research assistance from GenealogyHunter. I found records of Roy’s wedding, naturalization application, naturalization, and passport application, and subsequently, his and Nellie’s first and second international trips, and of Nellie’s death. There are many records of Roy’s talks, found through searches for “Babu Roy” and “Bheem Roy” on Chronicling America. I particularly appreciated this long 1902 profile of Roy in the Springfield News-Leader. In Iowa, we have two stories about Roy and his second wife. In California, we find the 1910 census record, several newspaper stories about his arrest and appeal (particularly the San Diego Union story on Sobharati’s testimony), and Roy’s burial and death records. The last trace I could find of Sobharati was in the 1920 census, but there are references to Ipanniah’s education and life all the way to her death in 1982. The images of Roy are based on San Quentin photos, and are my own work, created with Waifu2x, Prisma, and Pixelmator.