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Going to hell in a handbasket

Q From Brian Walker: Can you please tell me anything about the origin of the phrase going to hell in a handbasket?

A This is a weird one, which has puzzled and confused many writers. The meaning is clear enough, that some situation is getting rapidly out of hand and is going downhill fast. That explains hell, as the ultimate bad destination, but why a handbasket, of all things?

A couple of similar expressions give a clue. An early one was going to heaven in a wheelbarrow, which paradoxically meant “going to hell”. This may relate to a famous stained-glass window in St Mary’s Church in Fairford in Gloucestershire, which shows a scolding wife being taken away in a wheelbarrow by the devil. The saying is obliquely referred to in a sermon by an English clergyman:

Oh, this oppressor must needs go to heaven! what shall hinder him? But it will be, as the byword is, in a wheelbarrow: the fiends, and not the angels, will take hold on him.

God’s Bounty, by Thomas Adams, c1618.

Another version was head in a handbasket:

A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it.

Diary, by The Reverend Samuel Sewell, 23 Mar. 1714.

This second expression is rare. I can find only one later example, which looks very much like a direct reference:

When Murray first refused the certificate of election to Cannon, the Mormon delegate, there was an almost universal howl, especially from republican papers, and the governor’s head was demanded in a hand basket.

The Daily Ledger-Standard (New Albany, Indiana), 28 Mar. 1881.

Some writers have read into this version that it refers to execution by the guillotine, in which the image — as in the terror associated with the French Revolution — is of the executed person’s head dropping into a basket. Guillotines certainly predate both the French Revolution and Mr Sewell’s time (a famous sixteenth-century one is associated with the Yorkshire city of Halifax) but to make this connection would seem to stretch the imagination.

The version you’re asking about is a fairly common American one. Until recently it was thought to have appeared in the early twentieth century but the digitising of historical records has showed that it dates from at least half a century earlier. The first known instance is linked to a famous conspiracy during the American Civil War by the Order of the Sons of Liberty to release prisoners from Fort Douglas and burn down Chicago. Judge Buckner Morris was a principal agitator and is reported to have made a speech in the autumn of 1864:

He referred to the suspension of the habeas corpus, and said many of our best men were at that moment “rotting in Lincoln’s bastilles;” ... that thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would “send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket”.

The Great North-Western Conspiracy in All its Startling Details, by I Winslow Ayer, 1865.

We may guess that the phrase was already well known by this time. It wasn’t long before variations started to appear:

“Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not kill!” yelled a young man, an Irishman, who rushed up to us, holding in his hands a Douay Bible. Then he dashed the book upon a table, and filled the hall with the most fearful oaths and imprecations, closing with the declaration: “We’re all going to hell in a castiron hand basket!”

Corydon Republican (Corydon, Indiana), 2 Jul. 1877.

It has also often been shortened:

Politics never interested me. I know people who spend half their lives worrying about how everything’s going to hell in a basket — and it all goes to hell in a basket anyway.

Blood Risk, by Dean Koontz, 1974.

So why handbasket? I can only assume that the alliteration has had a lot to do with its success, and that handbasket suggests something easily and speedily done.

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Page created 19 Jan 1999; Last updated 03 May 2014