The Census War


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.