Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, separated by less than 10 miles on opposite banks of the Mississippi River, had one heck of a sibling rivalry going in 1890. The two boomtowns were nearly identical in population, which meant the new federal census of 1890 would establish bragging rights for the next decade as to which city was the state’s largest.
As the census began, both cities employed creative enumerators who recorded phantom people living with fabricated families at imaginary addresses. In an attempt to inflate its numbers Minneapolis dug so deep—6 feet under to be precise—that it counted thousands of denizens of the city’s cemeteries. St. Paul’s census takers demonstrated similar inventiveness in tallying 552 residents at the Ryan Hotel, 245 people living inside the Union Depot and 110 dwelling in the offices of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper. Acting on a tip from an undercover private detective, a deputy U.S. marshal from St. Paul arrested seven census takers from the Minneapolis office at gunpoint for padding their numbers and hauled them back to the capital city for arraignment. The arrests ignited a firestorm between the Twin Cities. “It Means War!” thundered the Minneapolis Journal. Indignant Minneapolis residents boycotted St. Paul merchants.
Unable to trust the counts reported by Minneapolis and St. Paul—180,104 and 142,541 respectively—federal census superintendent Robert P. Porter ordered a recount for the entire state of Minnesota at a cost of $30,000. The final official count: Minneapolis 164,738 and St. Paul 133,301. The Chicago Tribune reported that there was “no shouting, no brass bands, no bonfires” in Minneapolis to celebrate, however, for the city was disappointed that it had shrunk by more than 15,000 people from its first fictitious tally.