Dead Boy Detectives: Who Is the Washer Woman?

The washer woman's riddles proved to be instrumental in Dead Boy Detectives, but what are the folklore origins of this spirit oracle?

Edwin, Crystal, Charles, and Niko at the harbor in Dead Boy Detectives
Photo: Netflix

This article contains Dead Boy Detectives spoilers.

Dead Boy Detectives, like any other story told in the Sandman universe, borrows heavily from folklore from around the world while still maintaining its own unique set of rules for the afterlife and other supernatural events. One such figure of legend that appeared in “The Case of the Lighthouse Leapers” was the washer woman, a spirit who figures prominently in Gaelic mythology… but with certain liberties taken for the sake of storytelling.

The portent of spotting a washer woman by a stream, lake, or river was traditionally one of death in Scotland and Ireland, especially if the clothes being washed were bloodied as they were in Dead Boy Detectives. Legend has it that the blood-soaked garments were those of people who were about to die, and the unfortunate soul who encountered the “bean-nighe” (“laundress” in Gaelic) was likely next on the list.

Of course, that’s not how the washer woman is described in Dead Boy Detectives. The proprietor of the lighthouse gift shop describes her as a kind of oracle who can be found only via “light bent through prism,” through a “blood red door,” but “only for those in need.” The washer woman herself says that her burden is “to save lives” so that there’s “less blood to wash away.” She wants to answer questions!

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Some examples in folklore do allow for the capture of this fae spirit for the granting of wishes or for knowledge of who is next to die, but there are only certain versions of the bean-nighe that deliver cryptic knowledge the way the washer woman in Dead Boy Detectives does. On the Isle of Skye, for example, the spirit will answer her captor’s questions, but only if they answer her inquiries truthfully in return.

But it’s the bean-nighe of the Isle of Mull that’s perhaps the most bizarre. There, the old washer woman’s sagging breasts must be slung over a shoulder to keep them from interfering with her laundry work. Any traveler who sneaks up and nurses on them from behind, claiming to be the woman’s foster child, will receive any information they seek, perhaps without even all of the riddling obfuscation seen in Dead Boy Detectives.

These strange details are left out of the show for obvious reasons, but it’s interesting nonetheless that this mythological figure from Scottish and Irish lore shows up in Port Townsend. In particular, the riddle she shares with Crystal is particularly important to the later discovery of her ancestral powers: “When the ground moves and the bird cries, stop looking without and look within.”

The whole thing with the red sea glass was, of course, specific to Dead Boy Detectives, but with Mick of Tragic Mick’s, the magical sundries store, also seeking the washer woman to help him turn back into a walrus, it’s possible that we haven’t seen the last of this mournful oracle — or at least other creatures of folklore like her. Niko’s gift of green glass may not have provided the access Mick sought, but his story is likely far from over.

After all, a painting of Lilith, the goddess who gave Esther her immortality, was hung right alongside that of the washer woman in the lighthouse gift shop. And we all know how that turned out.

All eight episodes of Dead Boy Detectives are available to stream on Netflix now.

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