Going to Hell in a Handbasket? Origins please Dopers?

Well, the title says it all I guess. Where did the phrase “Going to hell in a handbasket” come from, and what the hell does it MEAN?



Well, thanks for the link there Astro. That has enlightened me as much as a two-watt light bulb.


Phrase Finder.

It means a rapid and utter deterioration, a state of affairs from which there is no hope of recovery, and all will soon be lost. The full phrase, with the addition of “handbasket” came from the early 1900s, but “go to hell” originated much earlier. The phrase is alliterative, the double-h there to emphasise the “hell” of the situation.

Fantastic site. Thanks for posting the link.

I’m pretty sure this has been dealt here previously, although I don’t have time to search in the archives right now.

You’re right, omni-not. From a couple of years back.

Hell in a handbasket.
Hell in a handbasket??

Nobody’s cited the Brothers Grimm story, “Brother Gaily,” but I think it’s the missing link here. I’m using the 1973 translation by Lore Segal [Farrar, Straus, Giroux].

For the sake of brevity, I’m skipping all the early parts of the story… to the point when the discharged soldier (Brother Gaily) has the knapsack that was blessed by St. Peter (so that whatever the soldier wanted to be in the knapsack would be magically transported there). B.G. takes up a challenge to stay overnight in a ghost-haunted castle; when tormented by nine demons, he loses his patience with them and orders them into his knapsack. Then he takes the sack to the blacksmith’s and invites him and his men to hammer away at it. They do so, killing eight of the nine demons (the ninth slips out and returns to hell).

Brother Gaily continues his random wanderings into his old age, when he becomes concerned about his eternal disposition. He consults a hermit about this, who counsels him of the wide and easy path to hell, vs. the rough and narrow one that leads to heaven.

Perversely, the adventurer decides upon the easy path – to hell. As luck would have it, though, the gatekeeper there was none other than the ninth demon, and he refused to let the man in, and begged him to go to heaven instead! B.G. agrees to this, but the gatekeeper at heaven is, of course, St. Peter, and due to his lengthy (and mixed) interractions with the man from before (including the first two-thirds of the story I didn’t even bother to summarize), he too refuses entry to our adventurer. I’ll go ahead and just copy the concluding paragraph from the story here:

“All right, if you won’t let me in, take your knapsack back, I don’t want anything of yours,” said Brother Gaily. “Give it to me, then,” said St. Peter, and so Brother Gaily pushed the knapsack through the railings into heaven and St. Peter took it and hung it up beside him on his chair, but Brother Gaily said, “Now I wish myself inside my knapsack.” Whoosh! and he was inside and that’s how he got to heaven and St. Peter had to let him stay.
So, in a way, it’s really more a matter of getting into heaven in a knapsack!


One more thing: “handbasket” is most precisely known in German as “Rucksack,” but scanning the dictionary entries for “Hand…” auf Deutsch turns up this: “Handgepack”: hand luggage. Either way, it seems possible that the German origins could have led to “handbasket”. FWIW.

Maybe it has to do with Toto.

How can a “rucksack” have anything to do with a “handbasket?”

A basket is English/French. And a “handbasket” is a basket carried by hand, from the 15th century.

The phrase “Go to Hell in a Handbasket” is from the 20th century. It is a variation on other phrases known in the 19th century.

Whether you “went to Hell” in a wheelbarrow or a handbasket or a bucket or a “hanging basket” (to quote Carl Sandburg), it all stemmed from the same sentiment.

And it didn’t have anything to do with getting into Heaven.

Thanks all…(I think).