Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Accident

The Car Accident That Killed a Woman and His Political Ambitions

Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy, 1979.

  Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Around midnight on the night of July 18-19, 1969, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy had left a party and was driving his black Oldsmobile sedan when it went off a bridge and landed in Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. Kennedy survived the accident but his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. Kennedy fled the scene and did not report the accident for nearly ten hours.

Although Ted Kennedy was subjected to a subsequent investigation and proceedings, he was not charged with causing Kopechne’s death; a point that many contend was a direct result of Kennedy-family connections. The Chappaquiddick incident remained a scar on Ted Kennedy’s reputation and thus prevented him from making a serious run at becoming president of the United States.

Ted Kennedy Becomes a Senator

Edward Moore Kennedy, better known as Ted, graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1959 and then followed in his older brother John’s footsteps when he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in November 1962.

By 1969, Ted Kennedy was married with three children and was lining himself up to become a presidential candidate, just like his older brothers John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy had done before him. The events on the night of July 18-19 would change those plans.

The Party Begins

It had been just over a year since the assassination of US Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy; so Ted Kennedy and his cousin, Joseph Gargan, planned a small reunion for a few, select individuals who had worked on RFK’s campaign.

The get-together was scheduled for Friday and Saturday, July 18-19, 1969, on the island of Chappaquiddick (located just to the east of Martha’s Vineyard), coinciding with the area’s annual sailing regatta. The small get-together was to be a cookout with barbecued steaks, hors-d'oeuvres, and drinks held at a rented house called Lawrence Cottage.

Kennedy arrived around 1 pm on July 18 and then raced in the regatta with his boat Victoria until about 6 pm. After checking into his hotel, the Shiretown Inn in Edgartown (on the island of Martha’s Vineyard), Kennedy changed his clothes, crossed the channel that separated the two islands via a ferry, and arrived around 7:30 pm at the Cottage on Chappaquiddick. Most of the other guests arrived by 8:30 pm for the party.

Among those at the party were a group of six young women known as the “boiler room girls,” as their desks had been located in the mechanical room of the campaign building. These young women had bonded during their experience on the campaign and looked forward to reuniting on Chappaquiddick. One of these young women was 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne.

Kennedy and Kopechne Leave the Party

Shortly after 11 pm, Kennedy announced his intentions to leave the party. His chauffeur, John Crimmins, was still finishing his dinner so, although it was extremely rare for Kennedy to drive himself, he asked Crimmins for the car keys, reportedly so he could leave on his own.

Kennedy claimed that Kopechne asked him to give her a ride back to her hotel when he mentioned he was leaving. Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne got into Kennedy’s car together; Kopechne told no one where she was going and left her pocketbook at the Cottage.

The exact details of what happened next are largely unknown. After the incident, Kennedy stated that he thought he was heading toward the ferry; however, instead of turning left from the main road to head to the ferry, Kennedy had turned right, driving down the unpaved Dyke Road, which ended at a secluded beach. Along this road was the old Dyke Bridge, which did not contain a guardrail.

Traveling approximately 20 miles per hour, Kennedy missed the slight turn to the left needed to make it safely onto and across the bridge. His 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 went off the right side of the bridge and plunged into Poucha Pond, where it landed upside down in about eight to ten feet of water.

Kennedy Flees the Scene

Somehow, Kennedy was able to free himself from the vehicle and swim to shore, where he claimed that he called out for Kopechne.

Per his description of events, Kennedy then made several attempts to reach her in the vehicle but soon exhausted himself. After resting, he walked back to the Cottage, where he asked for help from Joseph Gargan and Paul Markham.

Gargan and Markham returned to the scene with Kennedy and made additional attempts to rescue Kopechne. When they were unsuccessful, they took Kennedy to the ferry landing and left him there, assuming he was going back to Edgartown to report the accident.

Gargan and Markham returned to the party and did not contact the authorities because they believed Kennedy was about to do so.

The Next Morning

Later testimony by Ted Kennedy claims that instead of taking the ferry across the channel between the two islands (it had stopped working around midnight), he swam across. After eventually reaching the other side utterly exhausted, Kennedy walked to his hotel. He still did not report the accident.

The next morning, around 8:00 am, Kennedy met Gargan and Markham at his hotel and told them that he hadn’t yet reported the accident because he “somehow believed that when the sun came up and it was a new morning that what had happened the night before would not have happened and did not happen.”*

Even then, Kennedy did not go to the police. Instead, Kennedy returned to Chappaquiddick so that he could make a private phone call to an old friend, hoping to ask for advice. Only then did Kennedy take the ferry back to Edgartown and report the accident to the police, doing so just before 10 am (nearly ten hours after the accident).

The police, however, already knew about the accident. Before Kennedy made his way to the police station, a fisherman had spotted the overturned car and contacted the authorities. At approximately 9 am, a diver brought Kopechne’s body to the surface.

Kennedy’s Punishment and Speech

One week after the accident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to two months in prison; however, the prosecution agreed to suspend the sentence upon the defense attorney’s request based on Kennedy’s age and reputation for community service.

That evening, July 25, 1969, Ted Kennedy delivered a brief speech that was televised nationally by several television networks. He began by sharing his reasons for being in Martha’s Vineyard and noted that the only reason his wife did not accompany him was due to health issues (she was in the midst of a difficult pregnancy at that time; she later miscarried).

He went on to share that there was no reason to suspect himself and Kopechne of immoral conduct, as Kopechne (and the other “boiler room girls”) were all of impeccable character.

Kennedy also stated that the events surrounding the accident were somewhat cloudy; however, he distinctly recalled making specific efforts to save Kopechne, both alone and with the assistance of Garghan and Markham. Still, Kennedy himself described his inaction of not calling for the police immediately as “indefensible.”

After relaying his take on the sequence of events that occurred that night, Kennedy stated that he was considering resigning from the U.S. Senate. He hoped the people of Massachusetts would give him advice and help him decide.

Kennedy ended the speech by quoting a passage from John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and then implored that he be able to move on and make further contributions to the well-being of society.

Inquest and Grand Jury

In January 1970, six months after the accident, an inquest into Mary Jo Kopechne’s death occurred, with Judge James A. Boyle presiding. The inquest was kept secret at the request of Kennedy’s lawyers.

Boyle found Kennedy negligent of unsafe driving and could have provided support for a possible charge of manslaughter; however, the district attorney, Edmund Dinis, chose not to press charges. Findings from the inquest were released that spring.

In April 1970, a grand jury was called to examine the events surrounding the night of July 18-19. The grand jury was advised by Dinis that there was not enough evidence to indict Kennedy on charges related to the incident. They did call four witnesses who had not testified previously; however, they ultimately decided not to indict Kennedy on any charges.

After Effects of Chappaquiddick

Aside from the tarnish on his reputation, the only immediate impact of this incident on Ted Kennedy was a temporary suspension of his driver’s license, ending in November 1970. This inconvenience would pale in comparison to the effects on his reputation.

Kennedy, himself, noted shortly after the incident that he would not run for the Democratic nomination in the 1972 presidential election campaign as a result of the event. It is also believed by many historians to have prevented him from a run in 1976.

In 1979, Kennedy began the motions towards challenging incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination. Carter selectively referenced the incident at Chappaquiddick and Kennedy ended up losing to him during the primary campaign.

Senator Kennedy

Despite a lack of momentum towards the office of president, Ted Kennedy was successfully reelected to the Senate seven more times. In 1970, one year after Chappaquiddick, Kennedy was reelected by winning 62% of the vote.

Throughout his tenure, Kennedy was recognized as an advocate for the economically less fortunate, a supporter of civil rights, and a huge proponent of universal health care.

He died in 2009 at the age of 77; his death the result of a malignant brain tumor.

* Ted Kennedy as quoted in transcripts of the inquest on January 5, 1970 (p. 11)