- Historic Sites
The Census War
Nearly a hundred years ago two rival cities fought hard and dirty to win the battle of numbers
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
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.