Hell in a handcart
If something is going to hell in a handcart or, as a variant, in a handbasket, it means that it is going from bad to worse, deteriorating rapidly. It graphic power comes from the concept of hell being underneath and a handcart speeding up uncontrollably as it goes downhill. I used to think it was an Americanism but now I’m not so sure.
What has given me pause for thought is an image in the wonderful 15th century stained glass windows at St Mary’s church in Fairford in Gloucestershire of a scolding wife being pushed in a wheelbarrow by a blue devil. So the concept of being wheeled to hell dates back to a time before Columbus took the wrong turning. And then there is the phrase, going to heaven in a wheelbarrow, a euphemism for going to hell. This was referenced, albeit obliquely, by Thomas Adams around 1618 in God’s Bounty on Proverbs, “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”.
So the concept and the idiom, if we accept Adams’ use of byword to suggest idiomatic usage, would seem to be English but it indisputable that the first usage of our phrase appeared in print in the United States. Elbridge Paige in his undoubtedly useful book entitled Short Patent Sermons published in 1841 wrote, “[those people] who would rather ride to hell in a hand-cart than walk to heaven supported by the staff of industry”. Clearly the road to hell is speedier than the way to salvation.
Going to hell in a handcart is the variant that is most regularly used here in the UK. David Cameron, no less, said a little while ago, Government policy would “save a lot of lives that would otherwise would go to hell in a handcart”. But what of the variant, hell in a handbasket?
In the days when capital punishment was more the norm than, thankfully, it is these days, the executioner, using an axe or the guillotine, would occasionally put a basket in front of the block to catch the victim’s head. If the victim was truly guilty, perhaps they went straight to hell from the basket. The American Reverend Samuel Sewell – although he emigrated there from Britain at the age of nine – used the phrase in a handbasket in a figurative sense in his diary entry for 23rd March 1714, “Governor said he would give his head in a Handbasket as he would pass it”, a voluntary decapitation the equivalent of poking your eye out.
Perhaps the first recorded linkage of hell and handbasket was made in 1865 in I Winslow Ayer’s exposition of the conspiracy of the Order of the Sons of Liberty during the American Civil War to release prisoners from Fort Douglas and burn down Chicago. Reporting a speech made by Judge Buckner Morris, he wrote, “that thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas and, if once at liberty, would send abolitionists to hell in a handbasket”.
The Corydon Republican of 1877 recorded an extended variant, “we’re all going to hell in a cast iron hand basket” whereas Dean Koontz in Blood Risk (1977) used a shorter version, “and it all goes to hell in a basket anyway”. Handcart or handbasket – you can take your choice. Either way, the alliteration is pleasing.