[This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]
This phrase, meaning "to deteriorate rapidly", originated in the
U.S. in the early 20th century. A handbasket is just a basket with
a handle. Something carried in a handbasket goes wherever it's going
without much resistance.
James L. Rader of Merriam-Webster Editorial Dept. writes: "The
Dictionary of American Regional English [...] records 'to go to
heaven in a handbasket' much earlier than [...] 'hell,' which is not
attested before the 1950s. The earliest cite in our files is from
1949 [...]. 'In a handbasket' seems to imply ease and and speed
[...]. Perhaps part of the success of these phrases must simply be
ascribed to the force of alliteration. DARE has a much earlier
citation for another alliterative collocation with 'handbasket'
(1714), from Samuel Sewall's diary: 'A committee brought in
something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a
Handbasket as soon as he would pass it.' I suspect that 'to go to
hell in a handbasket' has been around much longer than our records
would seem to indicate."