To hell in a handbasket

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"Going to hell in a handbasket", "going to hell in a handcart", "going to hell in a handbag", "go to hell in a bucket",[1] "sending something to hell in a handbasket" and "something being like hell in a handbasket" are variations on an American allegorical locution of unclear origin, which describes a situation headed for disaster inescapably or precipitately.

New Orleans Mardi Gras day: wagon decorated as mini-float "Going to Hell in a Handbasket" with costume-wearing children

I. Winslow Ayer's 1865 polemic[2] alleges, "Judge Morris of the Circuit Court of Illinois at an August meeting of Order of the Sons of Liberty said: "Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would 'send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.'"[3]

The origin of the phrase although much debated has been attributed to the gold rush where men were lowered by hand in baskets down mining shafts to set dynamite which could have deadly consequences. [4] However, the usage probably dates much earlier with either the baskets used to catch guillotined heads or maybe as far back as the Bible’s account in Exodus of Moses being placed in a handmade basket. As a consequence, the earlier usages date back to the Journal entitled Weekly Pacquet of Advice from Rome: or, The history of popery, dating from 1862 that stated: "...that noise of a Popish Plot was nothing in the world but an intrigue of the Whigs to destroy the Kings best Friends, and the Devil fetch me to Hell in a Hand basket, if I might have my will, there should not be one Fanatical Dog left alive in the three Kingdoms." [5] This would make the saying not of U.S. origin.

Even earlier iterations of this phrase are "go to hell in a wheelbarrow" and "go to hell in a handcart". Evidently, the idea of being carted to hell in a wheelbarrow can be seen on such religious iconography as the stained glass windows of Fairford Church in Gloucestershire and Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Haywain, circa 1515, and was used in sermons dating back to 1841. [6]

In popular culture[edit]

Hieronymous Bosch painting The Haywain (c. 1515) (in the Prado, Madrid) illustrates a large cart of hay heading to Hell. The cart is drawn by 'infernal beings that drag everyone to Hell'.

Various versions of the phrase have appeared in the title of several published works and other media:

  • To Hell in a Handbag is the title of a 2016 comic play by Helen Norton and Jonathan White.[7]
  • To Hell in a Handbasket is the name of humorist H. Allen Smith's 1962 autobiography.
  • Hell in a Handbasket was the title of a 1988 Star Trek comic book.
  • Hell in a Handbasket is the title of a 2006 book (ISBN 1585424587) by American cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, who authors the cartoon strip This Modern World.
  • "Hell in a handbasket" was the name of an undescribed con requiring a trained cat referenced in the 2004 film, Ocean's Twelve.
  • "Hell in a Bucket" is a song off of the Grateful Dead's 1987 album In the Dark.
  • Hell in a Handbasket is a song from Voltaire's Ooky Spooky album.
  • Hell in a Handbasket is the title of a 2011 Meat Loaf album
  • A number of fictional characters have used a name that puns on the phrase, including:
    • Helena Handbasket is the name of a character in the TV show Friends. It is the stage name for Chandler's dad who is a drag queen
    • Helena Handbasket is also a fictional nymph in the 2011 video game Rayman Origins.
  • In 2014, President Barack Obama's decree on The Colbert Report started with the phrase "To Health In A Handbasket" [8]
  • The 2015 video game Fallout 4 includes a "Vault Tec Representative" (Vault Tec is a fictional company in the Fallout franchise) and refers to the phrase "Heck in a handbasket".


  1. ^ Hendrickson, Robert (2000). The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms. Infobase Publishing. p. 77. ISBN 1438129920.
  2. ^ Ayer, I. Winslow, The Great North-Western Conspiracy in All Its Startling Details. Chicago: Rounds and James, 1865. p.47 retrieved October 30, 2010
  3. ^ Martin, Gary. "The meaning and origin of the expression: Going to hell in a handbasket". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved October 30, 2010. The first example of 'hell in a hand basket' that I have found in print comes in I. Winslow Ayer's account of events of the American Civil War The Great North-Western Conspiracy, 1865. A very similar but slightly fuller report of Morris's comments was printed in the House Documents of the U.S. Congress, in 1867
  4. ^ Trevor Homer, Book of Origins, 2006.
  5. ^ Care, H. (167983). The Weekly pacquet of advice from Rome: or, The history of popery. London: L. Curtis, 1862.
  6. ^ Elbridge Paige, Short Patent Sermons, 1841.
  7. ^ Event of the week: To Hell in a Handbag by Peter Crawley, The Irish Times, August 24, 2019
  8. ^ Official video on Comedy Central's YouTube channel, December 9, 2014