Hell in a Handbasket

Doom express.

Dear Word Detective:  Why do we say that someone is “going to Hell in a handbasket”?  Why a “handbasket”?  What exactly does the full expression mean? — Sharm.

Well, it means that person is in a heap o’ trouble, on a slippery slope, circling the drain and on the road to perdition.  But before we all get to gloating, we should note that a lot of us seem to be “handbasketeers” today.  A quick search of Google News turns up more than 300 recent news media uses of “hell in a handbasket,” including this cheery note from the New York Daily News: “The economy is going down the drain, the cost of living is going through the roof, and low-income New Yorkers are going to hell in a handbasket” (July 11, 2008).  And things are no better Down Under, to judge from the Australian newspaper The Age: “It’s hell in a handbasket time, or so it seems judging by the recent rush of bad news on all fronts” (July 20, 2008).  It looks like buying stock in a handbasket manufacturer may be your best bet at this point.

I first tackled this question back in 1996, with limited success.  Unfortunately, the origin of “going to hell in a handbasket,” meaning “to deteriorate, especially rapidly,” hasn’t become any more certain in the years since.  We do know that the phrase is an American invention, and that it first appeared in print, as far as we know, in 1865:  “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 question, of course, is “why a handbasket”?  Is there something particularly diabolical about handbaskets (small baskets with handles, usually used for carrying fruit or flowers) that makes them suitable for conveying one to Hades?  The answer appears to be no, since “going to hell in a handcart” seems to be a popular variant in Britain, and “going to hell in a bucket” is popular on the internet (as well as a wide variety of lame puns such as “going to hell in a Hummer” and “in a handbag”).

I think the addition of “in a handbasket” (or “handcart”) served two purposes.  The first is simple alliteration, always a good way to make a phrase catchy and memorable.  The second, the idea of being carried to hell in a basket or cart, makes the journey more concrete in the listener’s mind, since “go to hell” by itself is a worn phrase hardly anyone takes literally anymore.  The basket or cart also implies swift and irrevocable transport to doom.

29 comments on this post.
  1. GuanoLad:

    A friend of mine suggested it stemmed from the baskets used to catch the heads at the guillotine. I suspect that is so “obvious” it must be wrong.

  2. Stephen:

    Although it may have become such, I don’t see speed as the essential element in the phrase. Instead I see someone being so messed up that what’s left of him can can be delivered there in a handbasket (or handcart, as the case may be).

  3. Sherwood Bishop:

    “Handbasket” is also a term for the woven gondola which carries passengers below a hot-air or other balloon. The first manned flights of hot-air balloons were in 1783, in France. Before the first untethered flight in France, there was concern that the balloon might fly to heaven or hell, and King Louis XVI decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, although two French balloon pioneers successfully petitioned him for the honor. Balloons were also used on both sides during the U.S. Civil War for surveillance and map making, so soldiers in 1865 could have easily been familiar with the term. Believe it or not, the first Civil War balloon, used at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, was named the Enterprise.

  4. C.:

    I always figured it derived from the conveyance of small animal companions — lap dogs, kittens — in such basket. Like, being carried there swiftly by an external power, with you gormless and ignorant of your doom.

  5. Laura M:

    Possibly from old mining practice of lowering children down in baskets to mines through smaller shafts. Fast drop by hand and rope in more primitive mines. Loss of control would be death. Thus “Hell in a Hand Basket” meant a fast plunge into danger/death.

    Just a theory…

  6. Arnold Ruiz:

    Hell implies the devil that he is throwing everyone into his handbasket implies to me the methodology of the antichrist. The people of Our world today are selecting for themselves the devil’s handbasket. The handbasket is a mode of transportation.The destination fits the goal of the people conjoined in any democratic society in the world today. Denial of Christ. is antichrist.

  7. Arnold Ruiz:

    Words only mean what we agreethey mean. The same goes for phrases and stories.Parables are the thing.Get this sylogism. A domineerin personality creates a tyrant.A tyrant with power becomes an imperialist.We know power corrupsts. How can we be surprised that those to whom we give power will not turn on us. A safty clause is written into the contract called a fiduciary. Every government official has a duty t think in the best interest of his constituents before he thinks about his oun best interest. Legislators have droped the clause.

  8. cj:

    I always had the impression that the person going to hell in a handbasket was gliding merrily along, imagining that s/he was being lulled into something unknowingly. The analogy being that many can’t see (or don’t care to see) where they’re headed, as long as they’re comfortable in the process. I always pictured it as Moses floating along the river.

  9. andrew cook:

    It seems like I hear someone say this expression every day. Here is my reply!

    Things are going to hell in a bandbasket:

    http://www.youtube.com/drewwcook#p/u/12/567v_GePgro

  10. joey:

    hi folks,
    you have a newsletter?
    and also,can you help me with the following meaning…there’s a new england saying, “they have seen the elephants & heard the hooty owl.”
    i welcome your help. if you answer it could you direct me.
    thanks, joey messina

  11. Jenny Atkinson:

    I wonder if the saying refers to the Mormon handcart pioneers. Leaving from Iowa City going to Salt Lake City. Particularly to the fourth and fifth companies who left in June/July 1856 and arrived in November 1856

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_handcart_pioneers

  12. Rhonda M.:

    I just heard the other day on show about mining, they were talking about that phrase originating
    from mining. I can’t remember exactly what they said, I just caught a bit of it. It had to be on
    either the History channel or history international or discovery channel or Natgeo.

  13. superpipoy:

    if that is an expression then so be it. i still can’t see the resemblance of that phrase to its meaning.

  14. Tyler:

    Actually, the expression, “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” referred not to the speed or ease of the journey but to the degradation/stigma of the act and the unfortunate chaos surrounding it.

    It does indeed derive from the handbaskets used to catch a criminal’s head lopped off by a guillotine and was reflective of the uncertainty and chaos which surrounded the French Revolution when anyone could suddenly be put to death for just about anything and for seemingly no legitimate reason. It is also important to remember that having one’s head cut off (ending up in a handbasket) was considered a particularly degrading and humiliating act.

  15. Brook Bullinger:

    Its a metaphor for casket. Basket = Casket/coffin

  16. Gerardo:

    If “going nowhere, fast !” means wasting time and time is running out, “going to hell in an hand basket” it is the waste of time plus it’s damaging effect and lack of control.
    Something is deteriorating and the circumstances are helping the deterioration process.
    The “hand basket” is just a “vehicle” that speed up/facilitate the process of “going to hell.”
    A ride of sort that gives you no control on the path you are following.
    You should “hold on to your horses” ,“get your ducks in a row” and “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”

  17. mrc:

    I just love all those phrases. It is amazing how many we use every day!

  18. Jordan:

    I am looking for the real origin. I know it is not an American phrase do to the fact that in the bible writen it is spoken a few times and the fact that the phrase has circled threw out egypt as far back as when Cleopatra had to flee Egypt for the last time she put her baby in it with a parchment that said to the underworld in a babybasket, but even then the saying was not new. It is rumored to be far older than that. I want to know about the true origin not what is just made up to make america greater than it really is.

  19. Don:

    There was a book labelled Book of Origins that indicated the phrase “Hell in a handbasket” referred to the gold rush of 1949 where men were lowered by hand in baskets down mining shafts to set dynamite. If there was a probelm or they did not get out quick enough, it was referred to as going to Hell in a handbasket. Anyway, it seems like another alternative to the phrase.

  20. Jim Ward:

    An imperialist is one bent on empire, not power.

  21. Gary Harris:

    I picture a wealthy Roman Senator being carried down the street in a basket. One man on each of the four corners. The ride is smooth, the curtains are drawn. The Senator is oblivious to the rough road, oblivious to the rubbish,mess,choas around him and the distress and anger of his fellow citizens. He is going to hell in a hand basket and he does not know it.

  22. Dave:

    He’s “Hell bent on election” yet if elected I fear the community will go to “Hell in a handbasket”. So “hope for the best” that the other guy gets elected. I’ve seen him “hammered and nailed to the wall” and now we see him with his “back to the wall” because of his outburst at a heckler.

  23. Bill:

    I think that if the origin of the saying is ever found it will be almost prehistorical. The reason I say this is that humans were using baskets of various kinds made from reeds, branches, or hides about 50,000 years ago. It is extremely likely that whatever bad places people were going for displeasing their gods they could have been going in a basket. Our equivalent of cremation was the common form of disposing of the dead during these times and those going to their equivalent to heaven were sent off in a highly ritualized ceremony guarantying they would be with their gods of the sun, moon, or whatever. Those who had acted in defiance of those gods were likely treated in a much different manner. In one Amazon tribe, according to Malinowski, they would gather the ashes and bury them deep in the ground thus denying them access to their god. He did not specify what they used to gather their ashes nor what they put them in but it could have well been a small basket or pot. Thus, they were being sent to hell, or at least denied access to their heaven, in a basket or a pot. This tribe’s rituals were said to have been unchanged for thousands of years since he was the first outsider to have ever studied them.

  24. stacy frisbey:

    i have been having problems with my bestfriend,and i have not been myself for mental reasons,but i wanted to know if i have done anything to my friend and i appologized to him if i hurt him.well my other friend said all i know is hand in a basket.

  25. Paul:

    I always thought that going to hell in a hand basket meant that there was so little of it left that it would fit in a hand basket.

  26. Feisty:

    My grandmother told me the saying came from the cash carry systems in old department stores. A rope-and-pulley system carried your money up to the cash office in a small basket. The cashier made change and issued a receipt, which was carried back down to the sales counter in the basket.

    The descent of the basket was quicker than the trip up and you were always poorer for it.

  27. janice:

    A friend of mine told me this expression stems from early wars in the beginning of our time, when people went out with hand basket to pick up any remaining body parts.

  28. Paul:

    Cowboys drove cattle to a Rail head, where they were loaded and sent to Terminals at Kansas City, Chicago etc.
    Young,newer cowboys collected their wages,boarded the train,and went to the BIG CITY for the First time,
    This was a GRAND Experience knwn as “GOING TO SEE THE
    ELEPHANT”. Taking in all the Strange sights and Sounds.
    After such an exhilerating journey,returning to a Staid,Normal life was very Peaceful. Peaceful enough to
    “HEAR AN OWL HOOT”.A statement about Life Experience.
    I hope you find this helpful.

  29. Klig:

    Since there is also the well used phrase goin to hell in a bucket (most excellently used by Bob Weir in the Dead song “Hell in a bucket”), the phrase hell in a handbasket conveys the same mental image of a free fall ride to the pit in a tiny cramped mode, while also being alliterative with the letter h.

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