The Origin Files: ‘Busting a Cap’

The weekend before last, we went to see the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.” I liked it, and liked it more than my date, who insisted the 1969 version with John Wayne was more compelling because it depicted a deeper emotional connection between Mattie Ross, the young girl bent on bringing her father’s killer to justice, and Rooster Cogburn, the old manhunter she hires for the job.

So the next night, we rented the original “True Grit” and watched that, too. The capsule review: John Wayne had almost audibly creaky knees. His acting, likewise, was almost audibly creaky. But there were a couple of pleasant surprises: Robert Duvall, who plays the bad guys’ ring leader, Lucky Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper, who has a bit part as one of the gang. (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of the new movie, with some good observations on the differences between the versions and the performances therein.)

truegrit.jpgOne of Duvall’s moments really stood out, but not because of any piece of acting craft. At one point, Lucky Ned warns Rooster that he’s ready to shoot the captured Mattie: “I never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen. But it’s enough that you know that I’ll do what I have to do.”

That line did not jump out at me in the Coen Bros. remake. And I don’t know whether it’s in the 1968 Charles Portis novel that the movies are based on. [Update: In the novel, Portis has Ned telling Mattie: “I have never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen years but I will do what I have to do.”] But like many others I’ve found comments from online, I thought “bust a cap” and variations like “pop a cap” were more recent coinages. Talking to my movie-viewing partner and speculating on the origin, the one clue I could come up with that would support a 19th century origin was the percussion cap–part of the firing system of guns before the advent of cartridges (a.k.a. modern-day “bullets,” including primer, powder and projectile in one integral unit).

To bust or pop a percussion cap–that would make a certain amount of sense. What’s the evidence that the phrase actually arose during the percussion cap era as opposed to the late 20th century gangsta era?

The source of choice is Google Books–mostly because it allows you to search phrases by date (the caveat: the search only returns sources in print that have made it into Google’s database. Still, that gives some idea of when terms have gained currency). A search for “bust a cap” and variations shows the phrase appearing rarely (fewer than 10 times a decade) up to about 1940, occasionally (say 10 or 20 times a decade) up through 1960, and becoming increasingly common (dozens or hundreds of mentions a decade) since.

Now, there was a mini-burst of “bust a cap” and “pop a cap” references in the 1860s, mostly connected to the Civil War. These, and virtually all of the other appearances of the “cap” phrases up through the 1950s, come from the South. Here’s one, an anecdote published in 1866 in a magazine called “The Land We Love,” (published in Charlotte, N.C., and edited by D.H. Hill, a former Confederate commander). It explains an insult commonly applied to green troops. From a veteran to one of the untried:

” ‘Axin yer pardon, stranger, my old gun is dirty and I wanted to clean her out. I’m jist gwine to pop a cap. Don’t be skeered, honey!’ From this, started the taunt so often used to cowards, ‘Lie down, I’m gwine to pop a cap.’ “

The ultra-modern sounding “bust a cap in your ass”? That phrase and variants, popular in movies since 1972’s “Superfly,” shows up nearly verbatim in a 1907 appellate court case regarding a homicide in Kentucky:

“Dave Grant testified that’ between 11 and 12 o’clock, at Landon’s barber shop, he heard Henry Cooley say ‘he would bust a cap In somebody’s ___ …”

Later, “bust a cap” appears in a form very close to the one in “True Grit.” Frank Hamer, the former Texas Ranger who led the posse that tracked down and killed Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934, is widely quoted as saying he’d been reluctant to shoot Parker:

“I hated to bust a cap on a woman, especially when she was sitting down, but if it wouldn’t have been her, it would’ve been us.”

The oldest documented reference I turned up? It comes from 1865 and was published the following year in “The Index to the Executive Documents of the United States. First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress.” Among many other papers, the volume contains the proceedings of two courts-martial held in the occupied South during 1865. The cases are harrowing and involve circumstances unthinkable in the southern states, and unusual anywhere in the country, before the Civil War: white defendants being held to answer for the murders of black victims. The first case involved a former slave who allegedly stole a horse and was shot and killed by the horse’s owner (the verdict: guilty of manslaughter; sentence: 10 years in a northern prison).

The second case involved a woman, Nellie West, killed by two men in Taliaferro County, Georgia–a former plantation overseer and a young friend of his–who wanted to stop her from reporting earlier maltreatment to the local military authorities. Here’s the overseer, John M. Brown, describing his accomplice, Christopher Columbus Reese, in action:

I was near the railroad crossing, and Columbus Reese was crouching behind the bushes, about seventy-five yards from me, close by the railroad track; I heard him pop a cap, and heard Nellie say, “Yes, I see you are trying to shoot at me.” … Reese then appeared to be putting another cap on his gun, at the same time hastening after her. I hallooed to bim, “Quit, don’t do that,” but he made no reply, but ran after her into the pine. … I then heard the gun fired, and saw him, after firing, turn round and stop. Nellie screamed two or three times, but I could not see her where she stood. Reese came back out of the pines and asked me to shoot my double-barrelled gun into her head to make sure that she was dead.

Both Reese and Brown were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged (their chief defense was that the court had no jurisdiction in the case). Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, endorsed an appeal for clemency in Reese’s case to President Andrew Johnson. As the scheduled execution date in January 1866 drew near, Reese came up with a story—not in evidence previously—that Nellie West was the aggressor and tried to kill him with a piece of scythe blade, that he killed her in self-defense, and that he had falsely implicated his alleged accomplice, Brown, to save himself. The Army’s judge advocate general responded in a letter to Johnson, “The attention of the President is respectfully called to the significant fact that not a particle of proof … to lend probability to his shocking charge.”

The post-script (by way of a footnote in “The Papers of Andrew Johnson: September 1865-January 1866”): Johnson at first approved the hangings. But after receiving appeals for mercy for both defendants—and despite the patently false confession of Reese and the judge advocate general’s opinion that “if the law does not take the life of such a monster of crime as this [Reese], then it is believed that the penal code has been enacted in vain”— he blocked the execution. History, so far as I can consult it on my laptop, doesn’t record what happened to Brown. Reese went on to once more bust a cap—this time in a bar-room brawl in which he killed a man.