Berkeley’s first Desi fortune teller was weirder than you think

Boor Singh took on cops, dog breeders, racists, and clairvoyants

illustration based on a 1929 photo³¹

Boor Singh immigrated to California in 1907, married a Black or mixed-race woman, became a fortune teller, and lived a life full of drama and tragedy. I’ve spent months trying to piece together his story, and the more I look, the stranger it gets.

Boor Singh newspaper ad from 1919 ³⁰

How I accidentally discovered Boor Singh

I was looking through old Berkeley, California city council meeting minutes when I came across a curious permitting request.

In July 1916, a man named Boor Singh asked the city for permission to erect a fortune telling tent in the heart of downtown Berkeley:⁹

From Boor Singh requesting permission to erect a tent on the west side of Shattuck avenue, 30 feet south of Bancroft way, to be used in the business of fortune telling

His application was unanimously denied the very next month.¹⁰

Who was this Punjabi immigrant conning Berkeley residents with his East Indian fortune-telling skills?

I began to dig, and here’s what I found.

Who shot Boor Singh? (1870s–1907)

Boor Singh was born in Gurdaspur, Punjab⁸ sometime between 1871–1876, depending on which record we trust.¹ ² ³ ⁷ It’s not clear what his life in India was like, but he apparently studied up through the 6th grade, and his immigration paperwork says he had two rifle shots on his left leg.⁵ ⁶ He lived in Shanghai for some time,⁸ then arrived in San Francisco in 1907, while in his thirties.

Who shot Boor Singh in the leg? I have a guess. In 1911, U.S. newspapers reported that “Boohr Singh,” a laborer in Oakland, California, was arrested for public intoxication. When he went to court, he showed off his collection of medals for military service with the British Indian Army, working in Sudan, Punjab, and China during the Boxer Rebellion.⁵⁷

Did the Indian veteran of Britain’s global wars suffer injury, move to California, and go on to become a fortune teller? If he did, he couldn’t possibly have predicted how his life would turn out: husband, father, clairvoyant, concrete worker,² laborer, shoemaker,hotel owner,²² restauranteur,²¹ and survivor of umpteen scrapes with the law.

Boor Singh meets his future wife in Oakland (~1917)

We know little about Singh’s first years in the United States,⁴⁷ ⁵⁷ but he had been in the country for about a decade when he met his future wife.²²

Grace Merrida was another non-White immigrant to California. She was born in Kansas in 1877, but was living in Oakland, California with her sister Amy by age twenty-three. She was likely Black or mixed-race, but White-passing; while the 1900 census marked her and her sister as Black, she was listed as White in every subsequent census.²⁸

Grace and Boor had a fortune-telling meet cute. Per the Oakland Tribune:²²

Mrs. Singh met her husband while he was conducting a fortune-telling booth in Berkeley. She consulted him at that time for advice in connection with difficulties arising out of a former marriage.”

Boor Singh gets an American family (1918)

Boor Singh and Grace Merrida, both in their forties, had a child, Babu, in June 1918. That October, Boor and Grace got married in San Jose, with Grace possibly posing as “Mary Grace Shimada.”²² ²⁹ ⁴⁹ ⁵⁰

It wasn’t a first relationship for either of them. In September 1918, Singh said he had a wife, “Otto Boor Singh” in “Jangley, India” (Attar Bir from Jangla?), while Grace had a daughter born around 1913, and later told a court that she had a prior marriage.² ³ ⁴ ²²

And just like that, the Singhs became a family of four: Boor, Grace, her five-year-old daughter Lillian, and their son Babu. (Babu’s name progressively whitened over the years: “Baboo,” “Babu,” Robert Singh,” and finally “Robert Burton Singley”; Lillian Singh became Lillian Dowell after her marriage.²¹ ²⁹)

Boor Singh is unmasked during a pandemic (1918)

It was November 1918, the flu pandemic was on, and a mask order was in place. Was Boor Singh an anti-masker, or just a forgetful new husband and father? Either way, the papers reported that he managed to get arrested by the Berkeley police for being out without a mask.¹²

Boor Singh makes his fortune (1910s-1920s)

Boor Singh learned how to sell himself to San Francisco Bay Area customers. By around 1922, he was apparently making about $10 a day from telling fortunes, sometimes charging $6 per reading.⁴³ This was in addition to owning and managing a rooming house, and doing concrete work.² ²² His assets at the time were reportedly worth between $12,000 and $20,000 — or between $180,000 and $300,000 in today’s dollars.²² ⁵¹

Boor Singh tries a terrible pickup line (1922)

Boor and Grace met while she was getting her fortune told, but he apparently didn’t stop there. In 1922, Grace alleged that he harassed a customer, starting with a terrible pickup line, and suddenly escalating. The Oakland Tribune described her allegation:¹³

Boor Singh, Hindu fortune teller, told a woman client there was a “dark man coming into her life who would love her…I am that man,” then he kissed the woman

Boor Singh confronts a racist government lawyer (1919–1923)

Boor Singh applied for citizenship in 1919, with signatures from two White men who had known him for the last five years, a concrete worker and a police officer.⁶ ⁵³ But the next year, Singh was forced to go to court, trying to prove that he was eligible for citizenship at a time when Indians were being increasingly barred for their race.¹⁶

A newspaper described Singh as “a tall, broad-shouldered East Indian of rather intellectual appearance” facing a naturalization inspector who argued not only that East Indians were ineligible, but that Singh “made statements opposed to the government during the war.”¹⁶

Boor Singh lost, and was denied the right to citizenship because of his race.⁶ His chances ended with the 1923 Thind decision, and he lived as an alien for the rest of his life, the racist policy reversed only after his death.⁵

Boor Singh beats a fake French clairvoyant (1924)

In 1924, Boor Singh got dragged into a legal battle with a fake French fortune teller working in the same San Leandro, California building. In one version of the story, Emma Quinn, a.k.a. “Madame Von Dohne,” was unhappy that Singh was unlicensed, and felt he was stealing her business. She would harass him by turning off the electric lights in his room, driving him to destroy her advertising materials. The judge asked their Chinese landlord to kick one of the two out. “Madame Von Dohne” apparently left, leaving Boor Singh the last fortune teller standing.⁴⁶

Boor Singh survives a violent attack (1924)

In 1924, Boor Singh was assaulted near his office and taken to the hospital. The Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that no money was taken, and there were three attackers, one with a club. The Oakland Tribune reported the use of a gun, rather than a club:¹⁵

That he was followed from the street car and attacked by three men was the story Singh told the police. The Hindu palmist declared that he was hit over the head by a gun and otherwise mistreated by the assailants. Whether the attack was inspired by former customers of the Hindu whose palms he failed to read correctly or whether an oriental love affair is the cause of the excitement is being investigated today.

Boor Singh gets sued by an angry dog breeder (1925–1928)

In 1924, Boor and Grace rented a building in San Leandro as a palm reading location. The back half of the space was occupied rent-free by dog breeder Richard Wilkinson and his twenty-seven dogs. Two months later, Singh demanded that the dog breeder leave, throwing his furniture into the yard, and knocking the hinges off a door, which allowed some of the dogs to escape. An angry Wilkinson retrieved all but two of his show dogs.

Wilkinson would have his revenge, suing Boor Singh for $11,175. The media had a field day, with headlines reading “Neighbor Sues Hindu,” “Dog Eviction Suit Exhibit,” “Valued Terriers Form Exhibit in Court Suit,” and “Man’s Nap in Kennel Costs Mystic.”⁵⁵ The jury verdict assessed the damages at $2,500. But in 1928, an amused appeals court judge eviscerated the jury’s decision, lowering the damages to $370.⁵⁴

Boor Singh inspires a new law (1925)

As local governments started pushing Boor Singh out of their cities, he set up shop right outside city lines.⁶⁰ In 1925, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors responded to complaints by introducing new legislation to tax and license palmists and sleight-of-hand performers.⁵⁹ According to the Hayward Daily Review:⁵⁸

The action by the board is is a result of complaints received…because of the activities of Boor Singh, Hindu palmist, who has offices on East Fourteenth Street just east of the San Leandro city limits. Boor Singh has been driven out of Berkeley and Oakland…and was denied the privilege of working in San Leandro. The directors of the San Leandro chamber are now asking the supervisors to prevent him from working anywhere in the county.

Boor Singh’s office explodes (1926)

In 1926, Boor Singh’s workplace, a studio at 1641 San Pablo in Berkeley, was destroyed by an explosion and fire. It’s unclear if this was an act of arson, perhaps racially motivated, but Singh would not be pushed out, and continued to work and invest in the building.¹⁷ ¹⁹ ²⁷ The Oakland Tribune described the event:¹⁸

An explosion and fire which early today destroyed a cottage at 1641 San Pablo Avenue is being investigated by police. Loss is placed at $2000. Neighbors told the officers that men had been seen running from the blaze and that a sharp blast accompanied the first flames. The structure was owned by Boor Singh, a Hindu, and has been used in the last few years as the studio of a clairvoyant.

Boor Singh gets divorced, but not really (1920–1945)

Boor Singh was not a good husband. In 1920, two years after his marriage, Grace was in court, asking for a divorce for cruelty.³⁴ ³⁵ The judge would hear that he refused to eat with Grace,³² called her ugly,³³ hit her, and made a creepy comment to Lillian.²² The highly public divorce dragged all the way through 1923³³, as divorce and alimony were granted,¹³ ³² Boor failed to pay after pleading poverty, and Grace went to court to prevent him from hiding thousands of dollars²² and sending some of it to India.⁴³ ⁴⁴

But after the dust settled, Boor and Grace found some way to reconcile, and got back together as husband and wife until the end of their lives.²¹ After presumably living apart in 1923,⁴² records show that the two were living and working together from at least 1924.⁴⁰ The marriage might still have been rocky at times (like in 1932, when Boor printed a notice in the newspaper announcing he was no longer responsible for Grace’s debts), but somehow this time, it lasted.³⁶ ⁴⁵

Boor Singh meets an undercover cop (1928)

In 1928, Boor Singh told an undercover Berkeley police officer that the officer’s wife had divorced him, and gave him advice on marital difficulties; unfortunately, the officer was a bachelor.⁵²

Singh was arrested for violating a Berkeley law banning fortune telling, mind reading, or seances. He insisted that he ran a shoe repair shop and didn’t read palms, but was found guilty and sentenced to pay $25 or spend 25 days in jail. He filed an appeal, and while the result is unclear, by 1929, he was exclusively advertising his services in a different county.³¹ ⁵²

Boor Singh wins a patent (1928–1932)

Boor Singh had a background in concrete.² ³⁵ Maybe that’s why in 1928, he applied for a patent for a concrete building mold system invented by his partner Christiaan Wolff of San Francisco. The patent was finally issued in 1932, with Boor named the 50% assignee. It’s unclear if Singh ever did anything with the patent to “facilitate the building of concrete structures but also takes into consideration the provision of a novel wall construction which may be embodied in ceilings, floors, columns and other building structures.”¹⁴

Boor Singh starts a cafe, fails his liquor license (1935)

By the end of his life, Boor Singh would be known less as a fortune teller, and more as the owner of a cafe or restaurant.¹¹ ²¹ In 1935, the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that the California State Board of Equalization denied Boor Singh a liquor license at his establishment at 1643 San Pablo in Oakland.¹⁷ According to the writer, most of the establishments denied a license “did not comply with State laws.” It’s unclear if he ever got his license.

The death of Boor Singh (1945)

Boor Singh died in 1945, when he was in his 70s.¹ ¹¹ ²¹ He’s buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California,⁷ and his great-grandchildren are still in the Bay Area. Robert died in 1946,²⁵ Grace in 1955,²⁶ but Lillian lived until 2010. She was probably the very last person alive to have known him, over a century after his arrival in the United States.²⁰ ²³ ²⁴

Why Boor Singh matters

On the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, we tell stories of students, freedom fighters, and laborers of the 1910s. But that’s not the whole story.

I’ve spent months uncovering Boor Singh’s story, because his immigrant hustle, mixed-race family, fortune-telling cons, scrapes with the law, and occasionally poor judgment show a grittier, weirder, and more iconoclastic side of early South Asian life in Berkeley.

The Boor Singh in the media was an absurd figure, but immigrants are sometimes captured at the most awkward moments of their lives. Was he also an avid gardener, a lover of radio dramas, or someone dealing with PTSD? The papers wouldn’t print such mundane details, so it’s on us to fill in the gaps and breathe a little more life into a historical figure we never knew we needed.

A vintage Boor Singh ad from 1929 ³¹


¹ Boor Singh in the California Death Index 
² Boor Singh’s 1918 World War I draft registration (1, 2)
³ Boor Singh in the 1920 US Census (1)
⁴ Boor Singh in the 1930 US Census (1)
⁵ Boor Singh in the 1940 US Census (1, 2)
⁶ Boor Singh naturalization paperwork (declaration of intent in 1913, application in 1919, rejection in 1920) (1, 2)
⁷ Boor Singh grave marker
⁸ Boor Singh petition for naturalization documents, 1914–1919
⁹ Berkeley, California city council minutes, 7/28/1916, page 191 as paginated
¹⁰ Berkeley, California city council minutes, 8/8/1916, page 206 as paginated
¹¹ “Boor Singh.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 10 September 1945, p. 8, col. 1.
¹² “300 Arrested for Violating the Mask Ordinance.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 1 Nov 1918, pp. 1,8.
¹³ “Court to Tell Fortune Teller Fate’s Decree.” Oakland Tribune, 19 Oct 1922, p. 4.
¹⁴ US patent US1841074A, filed 1928, issued 1932 (1, 2, 3)
¹⁵ “Hindu Palmist is Attacked by Trio.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 8 March 1924 evening, p. 11, col. 4. “Thugs Give 2 Berkeley Men Beating.” Oakland Tribune, 8 Mar 1924, p. 22.
¹⁶ “Hindu as Citizen Decision Waited.” Oakland Tribune, 13 February 1920, p. 10, col. 4.
¹⁷ “Permits are Denied 28 Establishments.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 15 Aug 1935 evening, p. 2, col. 8.
¹⁸ “Fire in Medium’s House Probed.” Oakland Tribune, 21 June 1926 afternoon, p. 17, col. 3.
¹⁹ “Week’s Permits for Buildings Total $59,345.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 22 December 1928, p. 7, col. 4.
²⁰ “People Fill U.C. Museum.” Oakland Tribune, 31 Jan 1971, p. 26-EN, col. 3.
²¹ “Cafe Man Buried; Was Born in India.” Oakland Tribune, 12 Sep 1945, p. 13, col. 1.
²² “Hotel Owner is Sued for Divorce.” Oakland Tribune, 3 Mar 1921, p. 6, col. 4.
²³ “Obituary for Robert Dowell,” Alameda Times-Star (Alameda, CA), 20 May 2005. (1, 2)
²⁴ Social security death index record for Lillian Elizabeth Dowell (2 Feb 1913–13 Jul 2010)
²⁵ “Deaths: Singley (Singh).” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 8 Oct 1946, p. 12, col. 4.
²⁶ Berkeley Daily Gazette, 22 June 1955, p.28. referenced in Berkeley Public Library’s Berkeley Obituary Index record for Grace M. Singh
²⁷ “Three Permits Net Half of $195,367 Total.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 7 October 1926, p. 5, col. 3.
²⁸ Grace Merrida in the 1900 U.S. Census, Oakland, CA, Ward 3 (1, 2)
²⁹ 1940 draft card for Robert Burton Singh, Berkeley, CA (1)
³⁰ Prof. Boor Singh ad. The Daily Independent (Richmond, CA), 1 Nov 1919, p. 8, col. 1.
³¹ Prof. Boor Singh ad. San Mateo Times and Daily News Leader (San Mateo, CA), 23 Feb 1929, p. 2, col. 8. The image in this article is original work by Indian caricaturist Rajendra Yadav.
³² “American Wife Lacks ‘Caste,’ Hindu’s Claim.” Oakland Tribune, 18 Mar 1921, p. 21, col. 1.
³³ “Not Pretty Enough, Tells Wife; Divorce.” The San Francisco Examiner, 22 Apr 1920, p. 1, col. 5.
³⁴ “Divorces Filed.” Oakland Tribune, 22 April 1920, p. 17, col. 6.
³⁵ “The Chronic Columnist.” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 May 1920, p. SM9.
³⁶ “Personals:…from Boor Singh.” Oakland Tribune, 13 August 1932, p. B16, col. 9.
³⁷ Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda city directory. Polk-Husted Directory, 1921, p. 958. (Grace Singh not listed with Boor Singh)
³⁸ Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda city directory. Polk-Husted Directory, 1922, p. 1307. (Grace Singh on separate line from Boor Singh) 
³⁹ Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda city directory. Polk-Husted Directory, 1923, p. 1432. (Grace Singh not listed with Boor Singh)
⁴⁰ Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda city directory. Polk-Husted Directory, 1924, p. 1721 (Grace listed on same line as Boor Singh)
⁴¹ Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, San Leandro and Bay Counties, April 1923. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1923, p. 127. (Grace and Boor have different addresses)
⁴² Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, San Leandro and Bay Counties, October 1923. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1923, p. 134. (Grace and Boor have different addresses)
⁴³ “Judge Makes Seer Empty His Pockets.” San Francisco Examiner, 23 December 1922, p. 13, col. 3.
⁴⁴ “Wife is Seeking Fortune Teller’s Secreted Wealth.” Oakland Tribune, 9 January 1923, p. 7, col. 4.
⁴⁵ Wilkinson v. Singh, 93 Cal. App. 337, July 28, 1928. District Court of Appeal of the State of California, Civ. No. 5608. (1, 2)
⁴⁶ “Home too Small to Hold Rival French, Hindu Seers.” Oakland Tribune, 18 November 1924, p. 13. “Medium Denies Celestial Home Sheltered Her.” Oakland Tribune, 3 December 1924, p. 4, col. 5. “Chinese Landlord Solves Seers’ Row by Palmistry.” Oakland Tribune, 2 December 1924, p. 36, cols. 6–7.
⁴⁷ “Boor Singh Unhappy in Prison Environment.” San Jose Mercury-News, 26 March 1908, p. 11, col. 5. “Vagrant Hindu True to Religious Belief.” San Jose Mercury-News, 27 March 1908, p. 7, col. 3
⁴⁸ “Birth Notices.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 22 June 1918, p. 10, col. 5.
⁴⁹ “Marriage Licenses.” The Evening News (San Jose, CA), 15 October 1918, p. 10, col. 4.
⁵⁰ “Marriage Licenses.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 16 October 1918, p. 6, col. 7.
⁵¹ “Berkeley Hindu is sued for divorce.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 16 April 1920, p. 62, col. 6.
⁵² “Mystic Errs in Reading Cards.” Oakland Tribune, 14 August 1928, p. 39, col. 1. “Seer’ Fails to See Police Star.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 14 August 1928, p. 13, col. 2. “Soothsayer’s Future to be Told in Court.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 15 August 1928, p. 32, col. 3. “Son’s Testimony Convicts Father.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 20 August 1928, p. 1, col. 6. “Son’s Testimony Convicts Father.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 20 August 1928, p. 1, col. 6.
⁵³ World War I draft registration cards for Albert William Anderson and Eugene Moran, both from Oakland, California
⁵⁴ Wilkinson v. Singh, 269 P. 705 (Cal. Ct. App. 1928), 28 July 1928 (1, 2) “Saturday’s Proceedings.” The Recorder (San Francisco), 30 July 1928, p. 8, col. 1. “Yesterday’s Proceedings.” The Recorder (San Francisco), 18 August 1928, p. 10, col. 1. “Yesterday’s Proceedings.” The Recorder (San Francisco), 16 October 1928, p. 5, col. 7.
⁵⁵ “Neighbor Sues Hindu For $11,175 Damages.” Oakland Tribune, 10 February 1925, p. 19, col. 2. “$5000 Mite of Dog Eviction Suit Exhibit.” Oakland Tribune, 6 November 1925, p. 21, col. 4. “Valued Terriers Form Exhibit in Court Suit.” Oakland Tribune, 7 November 1925, p. 2, cols. 2–4. “Man’s Nap in Kennel Costs Mystic $2500.” Oakland Tribune, 10 November 1925, p. 10, col. 5.
⁵⁶ “Convicted ‘Fortune Teller’ to Appeal.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 23 August 1928.
⁵⁷ “Hero of Soudan in Police Court.” Oakland Tribune, 7 July 1911, p. 19, col. 2. “Sepoy Veteran is Fined for Imbibing.” San Francisco Call, 8 July 1911, p. 14, col. 4. “Hindu Has Medals.” Marysville Daily Appeal, 11 July 1911 edition 2, p. 7, col. 2.
⁵⁸ “Palmists Will Be Barred from the County by Board.” Daily Review (Hayward, California), 26 May 1925, p. 4, col. 1.
⁵⁹ “San Leandro Ban on Seers Proposed.” Oakland Tribune, 16 December 1924, p. 32, col. 6.
⁶⁰ Berkeley, California city council minutes, 10/18/1918, page 374 as paginated