Published January 29, 2021 by Tom Porter

Drama Professor Abigail Killeen in TV Portrayal of Union Spy Van Lew

Abigail Killeen is coming to a screen near you soon. The associate professor of theater will be starring in an episode of the Emmy Award-winning series America’s Hidden Stories to air on the Smithsonian channel on February 1, 2021.

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Abigail Killeen (seated) endured soaring temperatures while wearing heavy Victorian outfits

The episode is called Southern Women, Union Spies and will feature Killeen as Elizabeth Van Lew, a prominent Richmond socialite who passed a number of Confederate military secrets to Union officers during the Civil War.

Described by Smithsonian Magazine as “An unlikely union spy,” Van Lew was driven by a vehement opposition to slavery and secession, which she had to keep a secret. She set up her own spy network and provided assistance to many Union prisoners, helping some of them escape to freedom.

“It was an honor to play a woman who found ways to leverage her privilege in service of justice,” said Killeen. “We shot it over three days during the summer at a historical site near Lewiston, Maine,” said Killeen. “We were able to proceed due to Maine’s low COVID infection rates at the time. The entire crew was in PPE, and so were the actors, unless we were filming,” she explained. “No one got sick!”

The shoot took place during a heatwave, said Killeen, which made for challenging conditions. “In temperatures of more than 90 degrees, I had to wear wool stockings, petticoats, silk, a wool cape, a wig, and a corset, in a historical house where we weren’t allowed to open the windows. We kept taking water breaks and lifting up our petticoats for relief.”