origin of ‘gone coon’ (a person or thing that is beyond hope)

Of American-English origin, the phrase gone coon denotes a person or thing that is in a hopeless state (here, the adjective gone means beyond help).

The specific image is of a racoon that has been treed (cf. the phrase to be barking up the wrong tree) but the construction ‘gone + animal name’ has more generally been used in phrases of same sense such as gone goose, gone gosling and gone duck; for example, the earliest instance of gone goose that I have found is from Sleight of Teeth, a story published in the Columbian Reporter and Old Colony Journal (Taunton, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 28th June 1826; in this story, Peter Snicker, a pedlar of tinware, bets that he will bite an inch off a red-hot loggerhead:

A group now gathered round to see the pedlar eat hot iron.
‘That’s a cool load of tin ware of yours,’ said one, with a quizzical smile.
‘Not so cool as you think for,’ said Peter.
You’re a gone goose! friend,’ said another with an ominous shake of the head.
‘If I am I’ll give you leave to pluck me’ returned Peter.

The phrase gone coon might have been popularised by the following fable, first published in the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine (Baltimore, Maryland) of October 1832:

The Dog and the Racoon.—A fable.

Mr. Editor:                                                        Little Rock, Arks. Aug. 29,1832.
In one of the numbers of your Sporting Magazine, you mention some well authenticated facts of Captain Martin Scott’s skill in the use of fire arms; an anecdote which I have heard in connection with the same circumstances, which though improbable, is so much to the point that I have been tempted to send it on to you.
“When the old rifle regiment was stationed at Fort Smith, (on the Arkansas,) under the command of Major Bradford, Captain S., then Lieutenant S., was stationed at that post. He was, perhaps, a better shot at that time than he has ever been since, for since then he has received an injury in the right arm. I well know that it was very common for him at that time, in a misty day, to set on the upper gallery or stoop of his quarters and shoot the common chimney swallow on the wing, with as unerring certainty as one of our backwoodsmen would hit the paper on a target at sixty yards at a beef shooting. At the same post was another officer, a Lieutenant Van Swearengen, (I believe,) who, though much addicted to the pleasure of hunting, was a notoriously bad shot. It appears that a dog had treed a racoon in a very tall cotton wood, and after barking loud and long to no purpose, the coon expostulated with him, and endeavoured to convince him of the absurdity of spending his time and labour at the foot of the tree, and assured him that he had not the most distant idea of coming down the tree, and begs him as a fellow creature to leave him to the enjoyment of his rights. The dog replied naturally, but I fear not, in the same conciliatory style of the coon, but threatened him with the advent of some one that would bring him down. At this moment a cracking in the cane indicated the approach of some individual; the coon asked the dog who it was? The dog replied with some exultation, that it was Lieutenant Van Swearengen—the coon laughed, and he laughed with a strong expression of scorn about his mouth: “Lieutenant Van Swearengen, indeed, he may shoot and be d—nd.” Van Swearengen made five or six ineffectual shots, and left the coon, to the great discomfiture of the dog, still unscathed, and laughing on the top of the tree. The dog smothered his chagrin by barking louder and louder, and the coon laughed louder and louder, until the merriment of the one, and the mortification of the other, was arrested by the approach of some other person. The coon inquired who it was, the dog answered with quickness that it was Scott:—who? asked the coon, evidently agitated! why, Martin Scott, by G—d. The coon cried in the anguish of despair, that he was a gone coon; rolled up the white of his eyes, folded his paws on his breast, and tumbled out of the tree at the mercy of the dog, without making the least struggle for that life which he had, but a few minutes before, so vauntingly declared and believed was in no kind of danger.
                                                                                                   An Arkansas Hunter.
Moral.—There is no elevation in this life that will justify us in indulging in an unbecoming levity towards our inferiors.

Variants of this fable reappeared in many American and even British newspapers from 1839 onwards; the following, for example, is from The Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, Vermont) of Tuesday 28th April 1840:

“Is that you, Captain Scott?” (said a treed coon to a famous hunter.) “Yes.” “Well, I’m a gone coon; don’t fire—I’ll come right down.”

The earliest occurrence of the phrase gone coon that I have found is from a letter by a person signing themself Pete Whetstone, published in the Camden Commercial Courier (Camden, South Carolina) of Saturday 24th June 1837:

          Devil’s Fork, (Ark.) May 15, 1837.
Dear Mr. Editor,—We have had fun of the right sort; Jim Cole gave a fellow hell—I’ll tell you how it was. Lawyer M’-Campbell sent word to Little Rock that if they didn’t do something for him, he was a gone ’coon. [&c.]

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