The phrase “to hold the bag” means: To be left in the lurch, or in an awkward or ludicrous position not of one’s own devising; to be made the scapegoat for faults committed by others; to be the victim of a mean trick.
This American expression was in use, and apparently well understood, back in the time of George Washington, having been used in a comedy produced in 1787.
But it did not occur to us, until reminded by several correspondents, that the expression undoubtedly arose from the “snipe hunt” known to us some ninety years ago, often gleefully described to us, nor, in fact, that the boyhood hoax of central Ohio of his generation could have been brought from earlier settlements.
How old the prank may be and when or where it may have originated, perhaps under another name, cannot be determined.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the game, this is the procedure: A group of boys, initiating a new boy in a community, invite him to join them some night on a “snipe hunt”, generally where snipe have never been seen. They take him far into the woods, wholly unfamiliar to him, armed with lanterns (or, nowadays, flashlights) and burlap bags.
At a “likely” spot the new boy is handed one of the lanterns, is given a bag, and is instructed to keep the bag open, with the lantern above it, while the rest of the crowd go off into the brush to scare up the birds.
The birds, he is told, seeing the light, will make for it and be caught in the bag.
Of course, the rest of the crowd actually reassemble at some appointed spot and return hilariously to town and their own warm beds, leaving the neophyte, shivering and alone in a strange place,”holding the bag” for birds that will never appear.
Incidentally, among the Pennsylvania Dutch the hoax is known as elbedritsch, and there may be other names for it in other parts of the country.