A dramatic feud — fueled by fraud

map of Minneapolis and St. Paul
The Minnesota Transfer Board of Trade made a map of Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1891.

On a Tuesday evening in mid-June 1890, a group of seven census takers from Minneapolis huddled together in the Vanderburgh Building, counting names. For the past several weeks, they’d been tasked with knocking on every door in the city and tallying each and every Minneapolis citizen.

Counting was a grueling task that year. The St. Paul Daily Globe reported numerous instances of doors slamming in census workers’ faces and citizens refusing to partake in the count in both Minneap- olis and St. Paul. Because of this reluctant local participation, there was widespread fear that the final tally would significantly underrepresent the cities’ populations.

And then, that night — June 17, 1890 — U.S. Marshal W.S. Daggett burst into the Vanderburgh Building room, arrested all seven men and detained six sacks of Minneapolis census papers.

He was acting on a complaint from St. Paul census official William Pitt Murray. Based on the testimony of a private investigator who had infiltrated the ranks of the Minneapolis census takers, Murray claimed that Minneapolis had inflated their census count and added thousands of fake names to their list.

A legal battle begins

Minneapolis, a booming manufacturing city whose population had been growing steadily, had already surpassed its older neighbor in size. In 1880, it had already accrued about 5,000 more citizens than St. Paul. But, being a proud city, St. Paul refused to accept defeat, and in 1890, they were determined to stop Minneapolis from surpassing them again.

This was the beginning of the Twin Cities Census War, a legal battle that stretched throughout that summer, even- tually escalating to the national stage.

The seven accused census workers were thrown in jail, and a $500 bond was placed on their heads. By the time their attorneys posted bail that night, news had spread. In a headline, The Minneapolis Journal declared, “It Means War!”

According to an American Heritage article by Jack El-Hai, the St. Paul Pioneer Press lost $15,000 as angry Minneapolis residents and businesses cancelled their subscriptions and advertisements.

Town meetings filled with enraged Minneapolis residents calling for a total boycott of St. Paul businesses and politicians. At one public meeting, a committee of citizens appointed to censure St. Paul drafted a resolution to strip the city of its status as state capital.

“These resolutions created unbounded enthusiasm,” wrote The Minneapolis Tribune on June 19, 1890. “When they were read, storms of applause arose, and when they were put to a vote, the vast audience jumped upon the chairs and shouted until the rafters of the old Armory Hall shook. There wasn’t a single dissenting voice — had there been it would have been drowned in the avalanche of cheers.”

Guns drawn?

Tensions rose on the other side of the river as well.

“Arrested!” cried the St. Paul Daily News the following day. “Scheme to Swell the Population of the Flour City Knocked in the Head.”

When a delegation from Minneapolis attempted to reclaim the census papers confiscated during the raid, several

St. Paul police officers allegedly drew their guns on the group, which included Minneapolis police officers.

According to one of the Minneapolitans, when a physical altercation broke out, the St. Paul police kicked a man with disabilities 16 times. The St. Paul officers denied the charge.

The embattled cities eventually caught the eye of the national media.

On June 21, 1890, The New York Times ran a story about the feud, stating that St. Paul and Minneapolis had “locked horns.” On July 23, another New York Times story claimed that St. Paul was “jealous” of Minneapolis, and that “the matter is regarded here [in Minneapolis] as a great game of bluff.”

Eventually the ruckus caught the ears of the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. When a census investigator travelled to the cities to interview officials and evaluate documents, he found evidence of widespread and premeditated fraud on behalf of the Minneapolis government. Census workers had added approximately 20,000 fraudulent names to their count. The investigator found that St. Paul had also committed comparatively low-level fraud. Among the inventions were people reportedly living in Union Depot and a barber shop. One residence in St. Paul supposedly housed 120 individuals.

A cartoon from the Minneapolis Tribune
A cartoon from the Minneapolis Tribune played off the Twin Cities census battle. Photos courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

No reason to cheat

Eventually, the U.S. Attorney General stepped in to end the skirmish and administer a census recount. As it turned out, Minneapolis had absolutely no reason to cheat; they emerged victorious with 183,000 citizens to St. Paul’s 143,000.

Not only did Minneapolis come out the bigger city, but the following decades also would see the decline of St. Paul, as its role as a transportation hub on the Mississippi River slowly became obsolete and the city’s economy fell into relative disrepair.

The power imbalance only fueled the cities’ rivalry further. It manifested in a bitter baseball rivalry between the St. Paul Saints and Minneapolis Millers during the first half of the 20th century.

The feud even reared its head in 1965 when the two cities refused to start daylight saving time on the same day, leaving Minneapolis an hour behind St. Paul for two weeks.

Now, united by shared baseball and football teams and a sprawling metro area of suburbs, the two cities maintain a tenuous truce.

Sibling rivalries never truly die, though, and who knows when another spark will reignite the famous Twin Cities feud.


Hannah Catlin is a public relations intern with the Minnesota Historical Society.