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The Census War

June 2024
8min read

Nearly a hundred years ago two rival cities fought hard and dirty to win the battle of numbers

In mandating a national census every ten years, the framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned a counting, not a bashing, of heads. Certainly the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen anything like the strife between a pair of Minnesota cities perched on opposite banks of the Mississippi River. But the intense rivalry between the twin towns of Minneapolis and St. Paul peaked a century ago during the 1890 census, and the tallying of their populations became a battle of neighboring police forces, lawyers, judges, and crooked enumerators.


The state capital and a center of business and rail expansion, St. Paul initially jumped to prominence as Minnesota’s largest city, and its population grew from 1,112 to 10,401 during the 1850s. Meanwhile, Minneapolis began primitively as a lumber town but blossomed in the 1860s as it gained the technology to tap the massive waterpower of the Mississippi for milling.

Mercantile setbacks for St. Paul brought the two communities to a virtual dead heat in population by the 1870s, when Minneapolis absorbed the prosperous mill village of St. Anthony. The census of 1880 gave Minneapolis 46,887 inhabitants, a slim advantage of 5,000 over St. Paul.

An unneighborly competition began, one that gained widespread notoriety for its ferocity. “The story goes,” wrote the French humorist Léon Paul Blouet, who visited Minnesota in 1890, “that once a preacher having announced, in a Minneapolis church, that he had taken the text of his sermon from St. Paul, the congregation walked out en masse .”

It wasn’t simply civic pride that caused the number of citizens to become a point of contention between the two cities. The census guided legislative and congressional reapportionment, which could alter a town’s political clout.

As the 1890 census approached, Minneapolitans and St. Paulites vowed to count every possible resident, to use the most efficient methods of canvassing, and to find the hardest-working enumerators. In April of that year Minneapolis established a Bureau of Information with the purpose, as its chairman, Edward A. Stevens, later stated in an affidavit, of locating “all such persons as rightfully belonged to Minneapolis, who, for any cause, would be apt to be overlooked by the census enumerators.”

St. Paul, convinced that a single good leader could accomplish far more than any bureau, followed a different strategy and picked Theophilus F. Smith as its census supervisor. Smith’s main qualification for the post was his recent work as editor of the St. Paul city directory, a listing that a newspaper critic across the river explained was “padded to the last degree, as is the custom in the compilation of city directories in the United States.”

As required by law, the census began in both cities on June 2, 1890, the first Monday of the month. Scores of enumerators canvassed their districts door to door, recording on printed forms such information as the name, age, occupation, place of birth, and spoken language of each household member.

Progress was slow in Minneapolis. The city’s Business Men’s Union later acknowledged that “careless enumerators had skimmed over their districts and made only partial returns; others were slow and would not have time to complete their districts; others were discouraged with troublesome districts, among the foreign element, and manifested no desire to properly perform their duties.”

As the tally fell behind schedule and workers scrambled to locate the lost souls of Minneapolis, one employee found the Bureau of Information’s work highly fanciful. John H. Mason, a private detective suspicious of census practices in Minneapolis, had been spying upon the bureau from within its ranks since May 31. In a sworn affidavit he reported that his work in the group’s headquarters in the Vanderburgh Building on Hennepin Avenue usually consisted of copying false information onto census forms. On one occasion his boss, the bureau chairman Stevens, handed him a list of typical ethnic names of various nationalities and told him to invent families for them. Mason created 32 clans totaling 122 people.


Others performed similar duties. “On June 7th,” Mason declared, “I saw one Gus Plummer filling blanks into which I had already copied the names as above stated, with such other information as is called for by said blanks. He was not copying it from any list or paper, but filling it in from his own imagination.”

When Mason presented his evidence to census organizers in St. Paul, they reacted quickly. On June 17 William Pitt Murray, a St. Paul census official who had long tried to discredit the population count in Minneapolis, used Mason’s testimony to swear out a complaint against a score of Stevens’s enumerators. That evening Deputy U.S. Marshal W. S. Daggett and Mason set out for Minneapolis to nab the malefactors.

Once across the river, Daggett and Mason walked to the Vanderburgh Building, where Mason had worked. The deputy marshal left Mason to guard the head of the stairwell, knocked on the door of Room 22, and asked to see Ben Aarons, one of the enumerators whom Mason had charged with fraud. Aarons identified himself. Daggett produced the warrant for his arrest and read the charges against him.

“Aaron[s], who is very lame, did not make any especial demur,” the St. Paul Daily Pioneer Press reported, “and Daggett read the names of the others wanted.” Suddenly their boss, Edward Stevens, appeared. “Then matters assumed a different phase,” the newspaper continued, “and the eighteen or twenty men in and about the rooms … commenced to mutter and talk about resistance.”

Daggett stepped outside to whistle for help from Mason. “As [Daggett] attempted to re-enter the room Ed Stevens pushed the door violently and tried to shut him out.” The door’s glass window shattered and cut Daggett’s head. Drawing his .42-caliber pistol, Daggett “leveled it at Stevens and the others in line with him, saying: I’ll put a hole through the first man who attempts to move through that door!’”

Naturally, the version of this encounter that circulated in Minneapolis was far different. “After violently breaking in a door,” says the report of the Business Men’s Union of Minneapolis, “[Daggett] found several enumerators at work checking over their lists with the names collected by the citizens’ committee. … Not withstanding their surprise, the men quietly prepared to accompany the officer, but that official produced a revolver and subsequently boasted of his valor in making the arrest.”

Four Minneapolis policemen, ignorant of the charges against the men, packed seven enumerators and six sacks of evidence into a wagon. They dropped off their entire load, including Daggett and Mason, at the rail station, where Daggett led his prisoners onto the nine-thirty train to St. Paul.

At five past ten the group stood before U.S. Commissioner McCafferty in a courtroom in St. Paul’s government building. Unable to post bond, the seven prisoners had resigned themselves to spending the night in jail when four Minneapolis lawyers rushed into the courtroom. They had heard of the arrests and had caught the next train. Foremost among them was William Henry Eustis, a dedicated Minneapolis booster who would bring the Republican National Convention to that city two years later.

An investigation found signs of conspiracy in Minneapolis, whereas St. Paul seemed to be guilty only of small-scale fraud and incompetence.

After a long legal wrangle in which McCafferty refused to transfer the case to the U.S. commissioner in Minneapolis, the attorneys paid a five-hundred-dollar bond for each of the enumerators. Then, St. Paul’s Daily Pioneer Press gleefully observed, “attorneys and enumerators started on a run to catch the last train to Minneapolis.”

When news of the arrests spread during the following day, relations between the two cities sank to their lowest point ever. All thirty-three Minneapolis members of the Twin City Commercial Club, a union of business leaders from both sides of the river, resigned. Judge Lars M. Rand, influential in swinging the town’s sizable Scandinavian vote, spoke in strong terms: “No St. Paul man nominated for any office hereafter will get my vote, whether he be a Democrat, Republican or Prohibitionist.” Thousands of Minneapolitans attended mass meetings in which angry speakers denounced the arrests, planned boycotts of St. Paul businesses, and agitated for the relocation of the state capital. The Daily Pioneer Press lost fifteen thousand dollars in canceled Minneapolis subscriptions and advertisements. Leaders of a mob that gathered at the corner of Third Street and Hennepin Avenue proposed a protest march—which never materialized—of ten thousand Minneapolitans into downtown St. Paul.

Eager for revenge, Minneapolis police set a trap. Deputy U.S. Marshal Daggett had posted a Pinkerton detective outside the Vanderburgh Building with instructions to follow Stevens; St. Paulites feared that the Information Bureau chief might try to dispose of incriminating papers. Stevens noticed his tail, told the Minneapolis police, and followed their instructions: He left the building at night, climbed into a hack carriage, and cantered into the darkness. The detective followed in another carriage. At the Tenth Avenue Bridge Stevens’s hack abruptly accelerated. The detective accordingly ordered his horses whipped to a gallop—and was promptly arrested for speeding by the police lieutenant who had been waiting at the other end of the bridge.

Another attempted reprisal was far less successful. At five o’clock on the morning following the arrest of the enumerators, eight Minneapolitans, including three policemen and two reporters, appeared in the government building in St. Paul to retrieve the six bags of papers that Daggett had seized. A lone St. Paul police officer guarded the evidence. Capt. Jake Hein of the Minneapolis police showed a warrant and demanded the papers. Eustis, also with the Minneapolis party, later told a journalist that the St. Paul officer “refused to deliver them, and, without the slightest provocation, seized Captain Hein ; as he would a highway robber, and, ; thrusting a pistol in his face, threw him from the room.”

Eustis recalled how the guard then summoned five fellow officers. “They pitched onto us, exclaiming, ‘Get out of here you G-d d—d Minneapolis—of—.’ I said, ‘For God’s sake! Is this the way St. Paul treats Minneapolis officers?’” Eustis, handicapped from a hip disease and leaning on a cane, paid for his remark. “The six policemen drew their revolvers on us, and one of them grabbed me and kicked me for at least sixteen feet.” A St. Paul newspaper asserted that the police guard had prevented Hein from forcing open the door, was aided only by a single fellow officer, and had kicked no one. Whatever the truth of the matter, the trespassers retired empty-handed.

Word of these shenanigans eventually reached the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. During the last two weeks of June, Robert P. Porter, superintendent of the census, ordered his Minnesota agent to investigate the rumors of fraud. The agent telegraphed back strong suspicions of dishonest enumerators in Minneapolis and hearsay reports of phony census information from St. Paul. Porter examined the completed returns from both cities, which gave Minneapolis a population of 182,967 and St. Paul a total of 142,581.

In Minneapolis he discovered signs of a widespread conspiracy by the Bureau of Information to inflate the city’s figure: fictitious families and groups of boarders; citizens counted doubly, at home and at work; hundreds of invented addresses. In St. Paul there was no evidence of conspiracy, only of small-scale fraud and incompetence; in certain districts of the city, absurdities on the census returns abounded: Enumerators reported 275 people permanently residing in the Union depot, 78 in the plant of the St. Paul Dispatch , another 78 in a house still under construction, 25 in the barbershop of the Ryan Hotel, and 34 in a one-story dwelling that measured twelve by twenty feet.


Porter determined a course of action. “Nothing short of a recount of the entire population of both of these cities, conducted directly by special agents of this office, will satisfy the people of the State of Minnesota, for it involves the whole State,” he wrote to Secretary of the Interior John Noble on July 26.

Porter’s criticism sparked fury in both cities. The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution condemning him for “unjustly linking the two municipalities in a common infamy.” Calling Minneapolis “this Jezebel, whose dallying with sin is the jest or the scorn of a whole people,” St. Paul’s Daily Pioneer Press denounced its city’s “forced marriage with a strumpet.”

The recount began on August 11 in Minneapolis and fourteen days later in St. Paul. Each tally was completed within a week. The new totals, which Porter announced simultaneously on September 13 (and later amended slightly), purged 18,229 phantoms from Minneapolis and 9,425 fictitious residents from St. Paul.

During that month charges against five of the seven men arrested on June 17 were dismissed, but a federal grand jury did indict thirty-three enumerators from both cities. Their cases languished until January 19, 1891, when Joseph Vervais, the census worker responsible for counting 275 people living in the Union depot, came up for trial in St. Paul.

At the trial Vervais argued that he had simply followed the instructions of Supervisor Smith in counting everybody present, not only dwellers, at the depot and other places of business. He assumed, he said, that other St. Paul census workers would cross-check his enumerations against reports made in residential areas of the city to prevent double counting. The sympathetic St. Paul jury, believing that Vervais had not bungled his reports willfully or knowingly, deliberated five hours before acquitting him.

Forgiving his rough treatment at the hands of the St. Paul police, William Henry Eustis stepped in to ease matters for all the remaining suspects. He raised bail for the St. Paul enumerators and arranged a plea-bargain deal for everyone: Stevens and another Minneapolis enumerator pleaded guilty, and a group of businessmen paid their fines, while the rest walked away free. Eustis’s neighborly acts, which perhaps contributed to his election as mayor of Minneapolis in 1892, seemed to end the enmity between the two towns. Never again did the rivalry run so fiercely as during the 1890 census. A truce still stands, with neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul owning up as the lesser twin.

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