The Iron Claw, Part 1

It was apparently a rather ignominious second half of life for someone who, for a handful of all-too-brief years, established himself as one of the most … unique shooting stars in the New Orleans Negro Leagues firmament.

Edgar Populus, in the early 1930s, was known as “Iron Claw,” most likely because he had, well, just one arm. Let’s just say I’d love to somehow, someway dig up a picture of this guy. At the time, he was the Depression-era equivalent of Jim Abbott, a pitcher of considerable promise that manifested itself early but seemingly burned out as quickly as it arose for public viewing.

In fact, Iron Claw was still a mere teenager when he burst onto the NOLA blackball scene in 1930 and, more fantastically, 1931, when he reeled off a string of dominating shutouts in the late spring and early summer.

His seemingly inexplicable prowess on the mound — dude had one arm! — enraptured the local African-American press and sporting public. Take this from the May 30, 1931, issue of the Louisiana Weekly in its coverage of a clash between two local sandlot teams:

“Thousands of fans stood spellbound Sunday afternoon while Edgar ‘Iron Claw’ Populus stood the Corpus Christi Giants up with two scattered hits and shut them out 8 to 0, for the Southern Stars on the Corpus Christi grounds.

“The one-armed pitcher gave up three walks and contributed to his team’s battery movements by clouting a triple. …”

A triple?!?!? The pitcher lacking an appendage crushed a three-bagger! That. Is. Insane.

Unfortunately, 1931 seems to have proven the zenith of Iron Claw’s career; he is mentioned in fewer and fewer media reports after that, and it looks like he was out of the game by the mid-1930s.

And it was all downhill from there — on a very steep hill. Between 1940 and 1961, Populus was arrested on at least four separate occasions on charges of running gambling handbooks out of bars. In other words, he was a horse bookie (which makes somewhat sense given that New Orleans is home to the Fair Grounds, a fairly substantive and nationally known racing track).

Then, in 1974, the bar at which he was working (apparently for his non-criminal job as a bartender), Cuccia’s on Allen Street, was robbed by a pair of gun-toting knuckleheads who made off with nearly $13,000 worth of cash, jewelry and a $5,000 cashier’s check that belonged to … Edgar Populus. He also had more than $1,600 in cash swiped.

And 16 years before that — in between gambling busts — Edgar’s mother, Antonia, and his brother, Adam (who also pitched a bit on the sandlots way back in the day), died within 10 months of each other in 1958. Edgar’s father, Antoine, passed away in 1973.

But at least all three of them — as well as Edgar and Adam’s grandfather, Lucien Populus Sr. — were afford at least some recognition in death, coming in the form of standard obituaries in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

When the once-great Iron Claw died in August 1983 (I have yet to pin down an exact date of death), his passing wasn’t mentioned in the T-P or Louisiana Weekly at all. But with apparently no children and all of his immediate family gone, there might have been nobody around to take care of details after Edgar died. That would indeed be tragic for a man who already faced life with a disability.

Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus, though, was a New Orleanian through and through. His family appears to have gone back numerous generations in NOLA as Creoles — mixed-raced southern Lousianians — who, as big city residents, weren’t shackled by slavery or sharecropping like so many of their brethren in the state’s rural areas.

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Page of the 1860 Census that shows Edgar Populus’ ancestors

I’ve been able to, as time permitted, trace Edgar’s family back to the 1860 Census in New Orleans and the respective families headed by two of his great-grandfathers. By 1900, the two strains of Iron Claw’s family were living within a block or two of each other, the Populuses on St. Bernard Avenue and the Oliviers on New Orleans Street.

In fact, the two fams are listed on the same 1900 Census sheet, in the city’s Ninth Precinct. The Populus clan was headed by the aforementioned Lucien Sr. (né circa 1852), a bricklayer, and his wife, Mary (born roughly 1858). The couple rented their home and had, at the time, a whopping eight offspring living with them, including 14-year-old Antoine, Edgar and Adam’s father. According the Antoine’s WWI draft card, he was born Aug. 1, 1886, a date that’s backed up by Social Security records.

Just around the corner, Edmund Olivier owned his own home and worked as — in an emerging familial theme — a bricklayer. (In fact, Lucien Populus’ father was also a brick mason.) Edmund’s birthdate is listed as unknown, although in previous federal tallies his birth year is pegged in the early- to mid-1850s, and multiple death records state it as 1855.

In 1900, Edmund (or Edmond) Olivier and his wife, Louise (born 1853), have eight kids, just like the Populuses around the corner. One of them is 14-year-old Antonia Oliver. New Orleans birth records have Antonia coming into the world on June 13, 1886. (That birth record, though, lists her full name as Marie Antonia Olivier, and it also misnames her father as Edward, a fact that causes some genealogical confusion given that Edmund, Antonia’s dad, in fact had a brother named Edward.)

Because of the close geographical proximity of the two families, it’s probably no surprise that Antoine and Antonia hooked up. The pair were married Aug. 28, 1908, and settled into wedded life in the city’s Sixth Precinct, Antoine working as a blacksmith and Antonia as an at-home dressmaker. Antoine later took up as a longshoreman, a very common job for Creoles and blacks in NOLA at the time.

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Along came Adam in 1911, followed by Edgar two years later, although multiple records list the future “Iron Claw” with a birthdate of April 28, 1912. Then, in the 1930 Census, both sons are still living with their folks, but by now both of them, still teens, were toiling as plasterers, while Antoine is dubbed a “laborer.”

‘Round about then is when the baseball careers of both Populus boys got off the ground … But that’s for Part 2 of the Iron Claw saga …

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4 thoughts on “The Iron Claw, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Brit and Iron Claw … some thoughts and revelations | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: Iron Claw unchained | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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