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To hell in a handcart

Posted by Dr. Rick M. Burton on March 17, 2004

In Reply to: To hell in a handcart posted by Smokey Stover on March 08, 2004

: : : : : : In Fairford church, Gloucestershire, the great West window (installed before 1517 AD) shows the Day of Judgment in stained glass, with the innocent going to heaven and the guilty going to hell. Among the latter is an old woman in a wheelbarrow, being pushed to her doom by a blue devil. So the idea of "going to hell in a handcart" is a good 500 years old.

: : : : : That is interesting.

: : : : Out here in the former colony, we sometimes say "Going to hell in a handbasket." I was never sure exactly what a handcart was, but I'm even more baggled by "handbasket." Nonetheless, I think I get the general drift of the expression. SS

: : : You say you're not familiar with "baggled"? Actually, neither am I. Perhaps my subconscious tried to mate "boggled" with "baffled." SS

: : You've coined a new word!!

: : Here are my notes from previous discussions of the phrase:

: : GOING TO HELL IN A HAND BASKET/HANDCART/WHEELBARROW/BUCKET - "'hell in a handbasket' poses one of the most perplexing problems that has crossed our desk in years," according to the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrases" by William and Mary Morris. The authors couldn't find the expression in any of the usual references. From an online source: [Dead link removed - ed]. "But a semantic equivalent to our mysterious phrase appears in a source quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (as the thorough Mr Laing has logged). It is from a sermon of 1626 by Thomas Adams, whom I find Robert Southey called 'the prose Shakespeare of Puritan theologians'. Adams published a 'massive folio' of his sermons in 1629, and an augmented collection came out in 1862. If I had these I might, though I doubt it, be able to understand what he means by the following: 'This oppressor must needs go to heaven.... But it will be, as the byword is, in a wheelbarrow: the fiends, and not the angels, will take hold on him.' I can see that 'Go to heaven in a wheelbarrow' means the same as 'Go to hell in a handcart', but I do not see why wheelbarrows are susceptible to fiends . Mr Laing suggests that handcart or wheelbarrow is the equivalent of hell-cart, which is a name given in the early 17th century to a carriage used by prostitutes..."

: I, too, am perplexed, mostly by how one could be conveyed to hell in a handbasket. According to the OED, a handbasket is exactly what it sounds like, perhaps the "green and yellow basket" of "A tisket, a tasket." How in hell do you get to hell in one of those? On the other hand, Mr. Gray has no hesitation in calling a wheelbarrow a hand-cart. In the U.S. of A., the difference is great. I'm not aware that Americans use the word "hand-cart" a lot; I think the more common term is "push-cart." It means the same thing except that "hand-cart" is perhaps more general. A push-cart is one of those things that vendors and knife-sharpeners push through city streets. A wheelbarrow (at least in the U.S.) has only one not-too-large wheel, and is designed for a different use than two-wheeled hand-carts. In Dublin's fair city, a girl named Molly (Malone?) peddled seafood, but in what? She wheeled a wheelbarrow through streets wide and narrow, but if this were a one-wheeled vehicle it would be an extremely tiring occupation, as one-half the weight of any load would constantly fall on her arms, extended downward in a somewhat unstable and tiring position. If she were pushing a hand-cart (or push-cart) the two wheels would bear almost all the load. And then there are dog-carts and pony-carts, but they are not usually cited as conveyances to hell. (I could really warm up to this subject.) SS

Consider, if you will, that decapitation was common from at least the early Middle Ages, and that the Hallifax Gibbet (predicessor of the Guillotine) dates to perhaps 1066. Heads were allowed to "drop" into baskets for easier disposal. The term "Head in a Handbasket" (alliterative, no doubt)was used as description of a very bad outcome. Noted in later literature, the 1714 phrase in research of Hell in a Handbasket often quotes "the Governor" of the given discussion talking about "Head in a Handbasket." This, and the given "Hell in a Handcart" noted in the Fairford Church (England), plus a bit of creative license, and Head-in-a-handbasket is not far from Hell-in-a-handbasket. My suspicion is that the phrase grew from an era where decapitation was common. RB