Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Accident

The Car Accident That Killed a Woman and His Political Ambitions

Ted Kennedy calling on a reporter during a 1979 press conference

Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Around midnight on the night of July 18, 1969, after leaving a party, Senator Ted Kennedy lost control of his black Oldsmobile sedan, which went off a bridge and landed in Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. While Kennedy survived the accident, his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. Kennedy fled the scene and failed to report the accident for nearly 10 hours.

Kennedy Background

Edward Moore Kennedy, better known as Ted, graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1959, and followed in his older brother John F. Kennedy's footsteps when he was elected to the 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 and Robert F. Kennedy had done before him. The early-morning events of July 19 would change those plans.

Though Kennedy was subject to subsequent investigation proceedings, he was not charged in connection with Kopechne’s death. Many contend that Kennedy avoided taking responsibility as a direct result of privileged family connections. Nevertheless, the Chappaquiddick incident remained a scar on Kennedy’s reputation, preventing him from making a serious run at becoming president of the United States.

The Party Begins

It had been just over a year since the assassination of presidential candidate RFK, so Ted Kennedy and his cousin, Joseph Gargan, planned a small reunion for a few select individuals who had worked on the doomed campaign. The get-together was scheduled for Friday and Saturday, July 18 to 19 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 at a rented house called Lawrence Cottage.

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

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. They had bonded during their experience on the campaign and looked forward to reuniting on Chappaquiddick. Kopechne was one of the boiler room girls was.

Kennedy and Kopechne Leave the Party

Shortly after 11 o'clock, Kennedy announced that he was leaving the party. His chauffeur, John Crimmins, was not finished eating dinner. Although it was extremely rare for Kennedy to drive himself, he reportedly asked Crimmins for the car keys 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 his intention to leave. Kennedy and Kopechne boarded the 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 together. Kopechne did not tell anyone 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 to the ferry. However, instead of turning left from the main road toward the ferry, Kennedy turned right, down the unpaved Dyke Road, which ended at a secluded beach. Along this road was the old Dyke Bridge, which had no guardrail. Traveling approximately 20 miles per hour, Kennedy missed the slight left-hand turn to safely cross the bridge. His car went off the right side of the bridge, plunging into Poucha Pond to land upside down in 8 to 10 feet of water.

Kennedy Flees the Scene

Somehow, Kennedy freed himself from the vehicle and swim ashore, where he claimed to have called out for Kopechne. Per his description of events, he then made several attempts to reach her in the vehicle before exhausting himself. After resting, he walked back to the Cottage and asked for help from Gargan and Paul Markham.

All three men returned to the scene and tried again to rescue Kopechne. When they were unsuccessful, Gargan and Markham took Kennedy to the ferry landing and left him there, assuming he would report the accident in Edgartown. They returned to the party and did not contact the authorities, allegedly believing Kennedy was about to do so.

The Next Morning

Later testimony by Kennedy alleges that instead of taking the ferry across the channel between the two islands (it had stopped running 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.

Around 8 o'clock the next morning, Kennedy met Gargan and Markham at his hotel and told them that he hadn’t reported the accident yet. As quoted on page 11 of transcripts from the inquest into the incident, 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 to 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 just before 10 o'clock, nearly 10 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 a.m., 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.

On the evening of July 25, Kennedy delivered a brief speech that several national networks televised. He began with his reasons for being in Martha’s Vineyard, noting 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, and later miscarried). He insisted 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 stated that, although his recollection of events surrounding the accident was hazy, he distinctly remembered trying to save Kopechne, both alone and with Gargan and Markham. Even so, Kennedy described not immediately calling the police as “indefensible.”

After relaying his version of events from that night and decrying his initial inaction, Kennedy stated that he was considering resigning from the Senate. He hoped the people of Massachusetts would give him advice and help him decide. Kennedy ended the speech with a passage from JFK's "Profiles in Courage," and implored viewers to let him move on and continue contributing to the well-being of society.

Inquest and Grand Jury

In January 1970, six months after the accident, an inquest into Kopechne’s death took place, with Judge James A. Boyle presiding. The inquest was kept secret at the request of Kennedy’s lawyers. Boyle found Kennedy a negligent and unsafe driver, and could have provided support for possible manslaughter charges. However, district attorney Edmund Dinis chose not to press charges.

Findings from the inquest were released that spring. In April 1970, a grand jury convened to examine the Chappaquiddick Incident. The grand jury called four witnesses who had not testified previously, though they were advised by Dinis that Kennedy could not be indicted on charges related to the incident due to lack of evidence. They ultimately agreed, deciding not to indict Kennedy.

Legacy of Chappaquiddick

The only repercussions were a temporary suspension of Kennedy's license, which was lifted in November 1970. Still, this inconvenience paled in comparison to the tarnish on his reputation. Kennedy himself noted shortly afterward that he would not campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Many historians believe the Chappaquiddick Incident prevented him from a run in 1976, as well. Kennedy did gear up for a primary challenge against incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination in 1979. Carter only selectively referenced the incident, and Kennedy lost.

Despite a lack of momentum toward the oval office, Kennedy was successfully reelected to the Senate seven more times. In 1970, just one year out from Chappaquiddick, Kennedy was reelected with 62% of the vote. Throughout his tenure, Kennedy was recognized as an advocate for the economically less fortunate, an outspoken supporter of civil rights, and a huge proponent of universal health care. His death in 2009 at the age of 77 was the result of a malignant brain tumor.

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Goss, Jennifer L. "Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Accident." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/ted-kennedy-the-chappaquiddick-accident-1779357. Goss, Jennifer L. (2020, August 27). Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Accident. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ted-kennedy-the-chappaquiddick-accident-1779357 Goss, Jennifer L. "Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Accident." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ted-kennedy-the-chappaquiddick-accident-1779357 (accessed June 17, 2021).