A situation getting rapidly out of hand and going downhill fast. Other versions would be ‘going to the dogs’ or ‘on a slippery slope.’
The first reference to ‘going to hell in a handbasket’ in print occurs in a 1714 entry in Samuel Sewall’s Diary, an American publication.
Another is found in the House Documents of the US 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.’”
An alternate version of the phrase, ‘going to hell in a handcart,’ is also American, but the ‘handbasket’ one is the most popular. Google News lists 300 recent news media uses of it.
There exists a theory that ‘handbasket’ was chosen as the vehicle to take us to hell because of the use of handbaskets in the guillotining method of capital punishment. According to Hollywood, at least, the decapitated heads were caught in baskets, no doubt going straight to hell from there.
But why a ‘handbasket’? Nothing about handbaskets smacks of Hades. They’re usually used only to carry fruit or flowers, maybe dirty laundry. But it may serve two purposes. The first is to provide my favorite language device, alliteration, which always helps make a phrase memorable. The second purpose is to make the journey more real to a listener, since ‘go to hell’ by itself is so over-used that we don’t even hear it anymore.
Sherwood Bishop provides an interesting and believable theory: “‘Handbasket’ is a term for the woven gondola which carries passengers below a hot-air or other balloon. The first manned flights of hot-air balloons were in 1783, in France. Before the first untethered flight in France, there was concern that the balloon might fly to heaven or hell, and King Louis XVI decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots, although two French balloon pioneers successfully petitioned him for the honor. Balloons were also used during the US Civil War for surveillance and map making, so soldiers in 1865 could have easily been familiar with the term. Believe it or not, the first Civil War balloon, used at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, was named the Enterprise.”
Shades of Star Trek!