HELL IN A HANDBASKET
Ever wonder where the phrase came from?1
I say it originated one evening at an inn in Saxony – with John Dee.
German inns were the worst in Europe.
A hayloft was a finer accommodation. At least in the warm months.
The aristocracy glided from estate to estate, intertwined lineage affording them lavish private accommodation nearly anywhere. A Friefrau, an insignificant title (third lowest rank of nobility), acquired through marriage (she not a blue-blood born), Annette von Droste-Deckenbrock, like most, patronized inns.
It’s seventy-some miles from Bremen to Hameln. Annette has covered that stretch many times. She has her favorite stops, where she is often awarded the owner’s own bed (he not in it, of course) with the cleanest sheets and fewest bedbugs in the joint.
At Zum Wilden Eber (The Wild Boar) . . .
mother and daughter are immediately shown to Frau Diefenbach’s apartment, the common room, full of exhausted travelers arguing, pushing, and scuffling, being no fit place for a fine lady.
Dee and Heinz, left to fend for themselves, take seats at a long table and are served a meat broth with bread, the meat tough and tasteless. There is salted fish, but it disappears before the platter reaches them. Wine of the most inferior sort flows freely.
All guests in a German inn are expected to turn in at the same time.2 Dog-tired or not, Dee and Heinz must bide in place until all diners have eaten, or, more correctly, drunk their fill. Sooner or later the patrons take wing en masse and are up the stairs to a nasty bed.
German innkeepers pride themselves on their ability to remain indifferent to their customers’ comfort.3 How does the Freifrau rate? She is eating the owner’s own dinner, a lovely rabbit stew, and drinking his excellent beer. Simple. She flatters a tradesman by cultivating him as a friend, and also tips magnificently. Her traveling companions eat the you-get-what-you-get menu in the dining hall. But they are not unhappy to sit and talk while they down all the vino they can hold.
Let’s see now, where’s that cat? Ah! He’s tucked under the table, at Dee’s feet, housed in his hamper for safety’s sake. The lid ajar, he’s being handed down the more inedible bits of the meal. Drusilla had thrown a tantrum, demanding he remain with her. He’s relieved to have been denied the pleasure of being wound tight in her arms, she whispering her undying devotion into his ear half the night.
“A toast, my friend!” Heinz lifts his goblet.
“Hear, hear,” John Dee reciprocates.
“The pipsqueak takes right after her.”
“Sure seems to.”
“Better days a-coming, Doctor.”
“Let’s hope so.”
“You’re not a bad guy, you know.” (If you’ve lost track of who’s speaking, don’t fret. This thought is in both heads.)
“I appreciate that.”
“How’d you latch onto her?”
“A weak moment.”
Heinz sighs. “I intended to earn my degree and teach.”
“A commendable goal.”
The corner of Heinzie’s mouth clenches. “The daughter of my professor made eyes at me. He got wind of it. He expected better for her than – one of no extraordinary expectations is how he put it. He went for the throat. He questioned the quality of my scholarship, accused me of plagiarism, destroyed me.”
“Did you plagiarize?”
“Please. Water under the bridge.”
“We all have skeletons. Beg, borrow and steal is my motto.”
“I landed at a lesser university, nowhere near the prestige. There I chanced upon the Freifrau, hunting for a tutor to instruct a precocious child with great potential. Precocious! I can think of better words. Pestilential, for one. Worn down from barely getting by, pea soup in a frigid garret – you may know the routine – I jumped on it.”
“I lived high during my student days, but I feel your pain.”
“You might’s well . . .” Heinz is beginning to slur his speech “. . . hear it all. To seduce a fine fortune, I felt it not beyond me. Annette worships scholarship, and I am a pretty fellow, why deny it? I set to work at being the prochain ami, the best friend, at her beck and call, as solicitous as closest kin. My previous dalliance influencing my thinking, I fixed my sight on . . .” he paused to refill his glass. “Sir! To the darling Drusilla.”
“Drusilla? Lord Above! I guessed Annette. Drusilla! How do you cope with the brat? She’s driving my poor cat wild.”
“Ha! You can say that again!” hoots Sly. Dee kicks his box.
Heinz, not attuned to an odd voice, misses it. “From the first, she despised me. That’s not saying much, she seems to despise everyone. I quickly understood that avenue to be a dead end. The mama was another story. I decided to try my luck there. Quite a situation, eh, Doctor?”
“Damn right!” says Dee, reminded of his own unhappy entanglements.4
“I am in a bind,” confides Heinz. “Things have gone downhill for me with the Freifrau. I may leave Hameln. I need money.”
“Don’t we all!”
“That reward will do us both, generously,” says Heinz. “I don’t care what you have, or think you have up your sleeve, you ought to hear my idea.”
“I’ll be frank. I dismiss the reputation that sold you to those village idiots, our town council. It may be a money-maker for you, but it’s all spark and no catch, and we both know it. The problem will be solved by a mechanical solution, not a mystical one. At the same time, there must be a magical aspect to it, the dolts expect it. We would make a good team, you on the hocus-pocus, me, the grunt work.”
“A two-pronged approach. Couldn’t hurt.”
“I have a familiarity” Heinz explains, “with calmatives, my father a medical man. I’ve devised a formula that renders a head-strong brat relatively reasonable. I do not administer it at present. Her mother, forced to deal with the girl in her natural state during our recent romp, is reminded of the miracle I have wrought.”
He taps his forehead. “Having achieved a good outcome with my disorderly pupil, I wondered what effect it might have on rats. When I heard you were on your way to us, I said – aha! – the final piece to the puzzle. Your reputation, the town has gone for it hook, line and sinker. Look, someone is going to connive these imbeciles out of their savings, why not us?”
“I see where you’re going,” says Dee. “We taint granaries, monitor each dawn, discover rats sedated, smash their skulls, and, I presume, disappear them to a ditch on the outskirts, in other words, into thin air. Or something of the sort. Who knows? We have two good brains here . . .”
“Three!” corrects a party below, unmistakably aggrieved.
Dee distracts from the interjection with an equally explosive, “Sir! Why not a common poison, easier and cheaper to obtain?”
Heinz is delighted to instruct a celebrated scholar. “Poison, necessarily kept clear of the grain, is easy for an intelligent pest – and these are highly intelligent – to avoid. My formula mixes into the grain. The right dosage will affect a small animal powerfully, though such as you or I would feel a pleasant relaxation, nothing more. But it will take a vat of the stuff to treat our multiplicity of storehouses. That takes money I don’t have.”
“We will start with one, see how it goes. I can manage that. But you must forego your per diem.”
“I am willing to throw in on that basis, for a thirty percent share. I am more and more optimistic that, between the two of us, we’ll crack this nut.”
“To you, sir.” Dee hoists his goblet.
“Your turn,” prods Heinz. “You’ve got my idea. Let’s have yours.”
Dee rubs his chin. He doesn’t care to mention Uriel.5 He feels his way: “My cat, he’s a very special creature.”
“You can say that again, brudder!” howls the irritated animal.
This shout-out Heinz hears clearly. “Dear God in Heaven,” he cries. “What in Satan’s name was that?”
The complaint continues. “If I’m so damn special, you bastard, why am I treated so abominably? Earlier, fine. I’m in, past the gatekeeper. Let me stretch my legs at least.”
Dee bends down to address the container at close range. “It’s for your own good, old pal. You and your smart mouth, I don’t trust you out and about just now.” He latches the lid against the cat making a dash for freedom. “This crowd, look at them wrong, you’ll be kicked to Kingdom Come.”
The animal erupts. “I’m not a pug dog to be carted around in a handbasket. I’m a free-roaming rascal. Live free or die, my motto. Have a heart, eh? I’m falling apart in here. These walls are closing in on me!” He kicks at the side of his cage in a fit of rage, wears himself out, and falls silent.
“Thank you merciful Lord,” whispers Dee. But it is the calm before the storm.
A frenzied voice, raised to full force, embarks upon a stirring performance. “I am lion, hear me roar!”6
The old man tugs at his beard. “Dear God in heaven! I might have known. Here we go. Here we go. Here it comes. The noble savage. Shut your yap, critter!” he shrieks. “Not here! Not now! Have you lost your mind?”
A screech to end all screeches is the cat’s jubilant rejoinder.
“No!” cries Dee. “No! No! God, no!” He lifts the hamper to the tabletop and holds it down – it is vibrating. The cat is pounding at the lid, trying to dislodge it. Bam! Thump! Bam! Thump! Dee pulls a ladle out of the bowl of beef barley soup and bangs on the box in sync with the cat’s agitations. Adjacent conversation has ceased. All eyes are turned his way.
The pummeling pauses. The recitation resumes: “Magnificent on plains of yore . . .”
Dee has heard it many, many times. He shrieks in unison, to mask the cat’s anguished cri de coeur. “A sneaky slurp, heart-stopping-fleet, I owned the earth beneath my feet.”
The cat soldiers on: “As fierce . . .” Drawn out roars and snarls interrupt the flow of the piece. The cat is working it.
Dee is on tenterhooks, waiting to jump back in. “Sing, damn you. Help me out here,” he spits at his dinner companion.
“Don’t know the words,” whimpers Heinz.
“Make some up, creep.”
Heinz mounts the tabletop and sings,
inserting, between Dee’s dramatically paced phrases,
an upbeat lyric, in a high-pitched whine.
D: “As fierce as ever I was then . . . I walk my sod-you walk again . . .”
H: “I’m walking, you can see . . .” (At the end of each line Heinz mimes an action; here, he’s high-stepping.)
D: “dismaying with my fine rampage . . .”
H: “as swizzled as I can be.” (His unsteady state speaks for itself.)
D: “a meaner world, this surly stage.”
H: “Won’t someone please rescue me . . .” (He’s on one knee, hands clasped.) “from this loon, name of John Dee.” (He gives a sweep of the arm in Dee’s direction.)
The wails (from the cat) continue.
“Dee, you dog! I’m dying in here! I can’t breathe!
“I’m having a heart attack! Mama! Your bad boy is coming, Mama! Forgive me, Mama! I had to see the world, Mama. Had to, though it broke your poor heart.”
He’s suddenly inspired to address the diners at large (in his serviceable take on the local dialect. He’d hung around a Saxonian envoy back in Haute-Navarre). “Live free, my friends!” he proclaims. “Live free or die! No masters! No rules! We are born with brave hearts. Find your brave heart – it’s in you, beaten down. This head dips for no one! No one!” This was dangerous talk. Rulers kept a chokehold on their subjects, and society colluded, as it generally does, to keep you in your place.
He’s gonna get us thrown into the deepest darkest dungeon they got, thought Dee. Fomenting rebellion, a nasty business. Up, he motions to Heinzie, who has reseated himself.
Dee blasts: “Waa-waa-waa-waa-walking!” Heinz repeats it, adding comic ambulation. Every time the cat tries to emote, they fire a volley of “Waa-waa-waa-waa-walking!”
Heinz seizes the basket and hurls it to the floor, putting an end to the cat’s exhortations to resist tyranny. He bends down and applies an ear to the wicker weave, trying to assess the animal’s state of being.
“You crud,” hisses Sly, stunned, but still able to speak. “You better pray I never bust outta here, cause when I do, I’ll rake your pretty face, pretty boy, but good. I knew a pretty boy once, another full-of-himself. Pretty Boy, Pretty Boy, Pretty Boy,” he taunts his abuser. He’d teased a parrot once, thusly. He mimics the bird’s invariable come back: “Go-to-hell-to-whore-son-hell-you-half-wit-horse-face-whore-son.” That line had always gotten a big hand at the Cracked Crock in his long-ago hometown.
A parrot, the big attraction in the local hotspot in Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, would chirp kissy-kissy from his perch behind the bar. When an enchanted newcomer leaned in for a sweet peck, Pretty Boy would grab onto the nose and refuse to let go. (But, I digress. Back to this watering hole.)
The room is hushed, memerized.
“Show’s over, gentlemen,” barks Dee. “Beer for all,” he instructs a serving girl.
“No, sir. Wine only with the bed and board.”
“Pitchers of beer on every table!” he thunders. “Your best beer! And keep it coming! On the well-known generosity of my patroness, Friefrau Annette von Droste-Deckenbrock, at the direction of her advisor, Doctor John Dee, Royal Astrologer to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England.”
The onlookers break into a sustained cheer. Heinz grabs up the hamper and makes for the stair.
Dee raises his arms, a plea for silence. “My friends! My apologies. I’ve had a bit to drink. Thank you for putting up with me.” His face falls. He clutches his middl, leans forward, and projectile purges wine – he hasn’t much of the dinner in his belly – across his trestle-board, onto the table beyond. “Woman! Your best brandy for those I’ve insulted with my unfortunate emission,” he screams as he flees, mortified.
Every locale has its visiting salesmen, itinerant teeth-pullers, and the like. The room is full of such.
“C’n you beat it!” marvels a tinker. “Some big shot, as much a boob as you n’ me.”
“Royal Astrologer?” A peddler dealing in notions – ribbons, laces, buttons, thread – is unimpressed. “Dresses worse n’ me.”
“A big noise? I guess so. A word from him, out comes the sweet stuff. I get a snort or two of Diefenbach’s top swill off it, John Dee, up-chuck on me any time.”
The notions vendor takes an appreciative slurp. “Dee, never heard the name in m’ life. T’other fool, I swear I know the face, from somewhere.”
- There are several theories of origin for the phrase. One is that it derives from the guillotining method of execution, heads caught in a basket. The first version of in a handbasket in print is found in one Samuel Sewall’s Diary in 1714, although the English preacher Thomas Adams referred to going to heaven in a wheelbarrow in God’s Bounty on Proverbs in 1618. The notion of being wheeled to hell in a cart is very old. The medieval stained glass windows of Fairford Church in Gloucestershire, England contain an image of a woman being carried off to purgatory in a wheelbarrow pushed by a blue devil. Going to hell in a handbasket, in a handcart, in a handbag, etc. describes a situation inescapably headed for disaster.
- Taken from a period account by Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch Renaissance humanist.
- Yup. Erasmus again.
- A demanding wife. A scurrilous partner pushing for a perfect meeting of minds through wife-swapping. (All true. I couldn’t make up a better story than the historical fact.)
- Dee believes he is advised by an angel named Uriel. (Again, absolutely true.)
- The recitation was written years earlier as Sly attempted to launch a career on the stage:
I am lion, hear me roar – insert roars here – magnificent on plains of yore,
a sneaky slurp, heart-stopping fleet, I owned the earth beneath my feet.
As fierce as ever I was then, I walk my sod-you walk again,
dismaying with my fine rampage a meaner world – this surly stage.