It isn’t at all obvious why ‘handbasket’ was chosen as the preferred vehicle to convey people to hell. One theory on the origin of the phrase is that derives from the use of handbaskets in the guillotining method of capital punishment. If Hollywood films are to be believed, the decapitated heads were caught in baskets – the casualty presumably going straight to hell, without passing Go.
The first version of ‘in a handbasket’ in print does in fact relate to an imaginary decapitated head. In Samuel Sewall’sDiary, 1714, we find:
“A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it.”
Sewall was born in England but emigrated to America when he was nine, and this citation reinforces the widely held opinion that the phrase is of US origin. That is almost certainly the case and, even now, ‘hell in a handbasket’ isn’t often used outside the USA. The expression probably had English parentage though. The English preacher Thomas Adams referred to ‘going to heaven in a wheelbarrow’ in Gods Bounty on Proverbs, 1618:
Oh, this oppressor [i.e. one who was wealthy but gave little to the church] 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.
‘Going to heaven in a wheelbarrow’ was a euphemistic way of saying ‘going to hell’. The notion of sinners being literally wheeled to hell in barrows or carts is certainly very old. The mediaeval stained glass windows of Fairford Church in Gloucestershire contain an image of a woman being carried off to purgatory in a wheelbarrow pushed by a blue devil.
The thought behind the phrase is 17th century, but the precise wording ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ and its alternative form ‘going to hell in a handcart’ originated in the US around the middle of the 19th century. The ‘handbasket’ version is now the more common.
‘Going to hell in a handbasket’ seems to be just a colourful version of ‘going to hell’, in the same sense as ‘going to the dogs’. ‘In a handbasket’ is an alliterative intensifier which gives the expression a catchy ring. There doesn’t appear to be any particular significance to ‘handbasket’ apart from the alliteration – any other conveyance beginning with ‘H’ would have done just as well. The similar earlier phrases ‘hell in a basket’ and ‘hell in a wheelbarrow’, not having the same catchiness, have now disappeared from common use. Let’s launch ‘going to hell in a hovercraft’ and see if that flies, so to speak.
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:
Speaking of men who had been arrested he [Judge Morris] said, “Some of our very best, and thousands of brave men, at this very moment in Camp Douglas, are our friends; who, if they were once at liberty, would send the abolitionists to hell in a hand-basket.”
‘Hell in a handcart’ is found in print before ‘hell in a handbasket’. The earliest citation I can find for that is in Elbridge Paige’s book of Short Patent Sermons, 1841:
[Those people] who would rather ride to hell in a hand-cart than walk to heaven supported by the staff of industry.