What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death

Trista - January 30, 2019

Senator Ted Kennedy, the youngest brother of assassinated president John F. Kennedy and slain presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy had his own eye on the presidency before the fatal Chappaquiddick incident on July 18, 1969. The episode saw Senator Kennedy drive his car off of a bridge into a pond. His passenger, a young campaign staffer, named Mary Jo Kopechne, was not able to free herself from the sinking car. Kennedy left her behind to go get help, bringing only two hand-chosen close friends. After they were unable to retrieve her, they left without ever notifying anyone else. Kopechne’s body was found the next day.


What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Mary Jo Kopechne and Robert F. Kennedy. Photo by ANL/REX/Shutterstock/People.

16. Mary Jo Kopechne, The Victim, Was Never Autopsied

Due to Kennedy and his friends never notifying authorities about the accident, Kopechne’s body wasn’t found for hours. Locals discovered the car in the water the next day, July 19th, and alerted the police. Divers found Kopechne’s body on the morning of the 19th. According to a firefighter on the scene, who helped recover the body, Kopechne was positioned in a way that indicated she had an air bubble and was fighting to live as the car was slowly submerged. Others have argued that the water would have been too cold to survive for long. Regardless of how long it took, what is undeniable is that Kopechne died under suspicious circumstances.

Despite her death under tragic and unknown circumstances, Kopechne was never given an autopsy. An examination would have made it clear if she had drowned or suffocated as well as if she had other injuries, had been drinking, or most controversial of all, had she been pregnant. Even in the 60s, it was traditional to autopsy bodies when a crime possibly occurred. At the time, Mary Jo’s parents opted out of autopsy proceedings due to the scandal surrounding whether or not their daughter was pregnant. Her mother said later in an interview that choosing to not do an autopsy was the biggest mistake of her life and that it could have “cleared a lot of things up.”

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
A headline on the Chappaquiddick incident. Pinterest.

15. The Incident Likely Cost Kennedy the Presidency

The Kennedy family was already a prolific political family in 1969. Ted’s older brother, John, was the much-beloved assassinated president. His other older brother, Robert, was an incredibly popular candidate for the presidency whose bid was cut short by yet another assassination. It was only natural, then, that the young senator had his eyes on the prize of the presidency in 1969, to follow in his slain brothers’ footsteps. Kennedy had name recognition in spades, more than enough money to mount a serious challenge and a legion of young female staffers, called “boiler room girls” who had worked incredibly hard on Robert’s campaign and would likely work for Ted if asked as well.

All of these positive factors were challenged after the Chappaquiddick incident. Kennedy’s questionable story surrounding the event, his delay in notifying both authorities and his constituents, and relentless media coverage all severely damaged his credibility and popularity with American voters. When he ran for the presidential nomination against Jimmy Carter in 1979, the Chappaquiddick incident was heavily featured in debates and news stories. Carter himself negatively referenced the episode and cast doubt on his opponent’s qualifications for the office. Kennedy lost the nomination. He never ran for president again.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Senator Ted Kennedy later in life. The Boston Globe.

14. Despite Rumors and Insinuations, He Remained a Senator Until His Death

The Chappaquiddick incident haunted Ted Kennedy for the rest of his life. The event was satirized and ridiculed constantly. The National Lampoon ran an infamous fake Volkswagen ad that showed a VW Bug floating in a body of water with the text “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” Republicans wasted no time in pointing out the massive flaws in Kennedy’s judgment and character surrounding the incident, using it as a political football to paint the entire Democratic Party as corrupt. Even other Democrats, like his presidential nomination opponent, Jimmy Carter, used the incident to discredit him.

Despite the haunting memories of the event and the questions it raised about him as a person, Kennedy’s constituents in Massachusetts seemed unfazed by the incident. Despite all the negative publicity surrounding the event in 1969, Kennedy won re-election in 1970 with 62% of the vote. However, he did lose his role as Senate Majority whip in 1971. While the rumors, questions, and accusations continued to swirl around Chappaquiddick for the rest of Kennedy’s life, Ted comfortably won re-election as Senator of Massachusetts every six years and died in office. He was the third longest continuously serving US Senator in history.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Robert F. Kennedy in 1964. Irish Central.

13. The Party Before the Incident Was for Female Campaign Workers

Robert F. Kennedy’s doomed presidential campaign was staffed by countless energetic, unmarried young women affectionately called the “boiler room girls.” These talented women, who counted Mary Jo Kopechne among their numbers, were capable young political minds who wrote speeches, whipped support among national Democratic delegates, and staged campaign events. Needless to say, these staffers were absolutely devastated by the assassination of their employer and political icon. Many of them were supposedly questioning their roles in politics after the killing.

The party on Chappaquiddick Island on the night of January 18th was thrown for these women, these “boiler room girls” to honor their hard work for Robert F. Kennedy and to try to persuade them to stay involved with politics. Ted Kennedy was already eyeing a run at the presidency at this point, and no doubt wanted to keep the talented young staffers from his brother’s campaign around to work on his. Unfortunately for Kennedy, the media seized on the fact that the party was full of unmarried women and married political men, not that they were his brother’s campaign workers who just happened to be single. It was still traditional in the 1960s for working women to be unmarried, only leaving their careers when they “settled down” in a marriage.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning for the presidential nomination. Corbis/Getty Images/Daily Mail UK.

12. All of the Female Workers Were Unmarried, but All the Men Were Married

The media was very quick to seize upon the narrative of the women at the party being all young and unmarried, despite their status as campaign workers. While the conventions of the era were for working women to be single, the media wasn’t exactly fair in its coverage of women at the time. The first headline of Kopechne’s death referred to her only as “a blonde,” a truly awful title for a college-educated woman who was herself an educator and a speech-writer to a talented presidential candidate. While it was slightly unusual that so many of the campaign staffers were women, their being unmarried didn’t seem noteworthy. Even today, campaign workers are often unmarried due to the itinerant and demanding nature of campaign work.

What was unusual was the amount of booze transported to the island for a supposedly quiet campaign party, reportedly a large stash of beer, rum, and other hard liquors. Kopechne’s blood alcohol result, after her body was found, was 0.09, indicating that she had a great deal of alcohol in her system at the time of her death. Given that one of Kennedy’s first calls was to his long-term girlfriend, instead of his wife Joan, Kennedy was no stranger to affairs. His propensity for cheating combined with the unmarried women at the party, the amount of liquor, and the reported rowdiness of the night created an extremely damaging picture for the Senator.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
The bridge off which Kennedy drove. Wikimedia.

11. The Victim Left the Party with Kennedy to Go to Her Hotel

The story given to the media by Kennedy’s team was that Kennedy was driving Kopechne to the ferry so she could return to her hotel, as she was feeling under the weather. Two significant flaws quickly emerged in this story: first, Kopechne left her keys and bag behind at the party, indicating that she intended to return. Second, Kennedy did not take the well-marked road leading to the ferry, which he knew well enough to mention in his statement to police. Instead, he turned towards the fateful bridge that would have taken him and Kopechne to a small, secluded private beach.

An off-duty police officer saw Kennedy’s car sitting on the road towards the private beach at around midnight and attempted to approach it to see if the occupants needed anything. He reported that it shot off down the road at high speed before he reached it, but he noted a couple of the license plate numbers and the car’s appearance. This was around midnight, which also contradicted Kennedy’s story that he attempted to take her to the ferry well before midnight. A resident who lived on the road to the beach also reported hearing a car drive by at an unusually high speed after midnight, again calling Kennedy’s story into question.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
The car Ted Kennedy drove in the Chappaquiddick incident. History.

10. Kennedy Drove Off a Bridge and Crashed Into a Pond

Ted Kennedy stated that he took a wrong turn on the way to the ferry, driving instead down the narrow unpaved road towards the infamous bridge over Poucha Pond. His memory was fuzzy, he said in statements, but he somehow ended up driving off the bridge and into the pond, where the car overturned. At the time, the bridge did not have any guard rails or protective devices in place, and the road did bend at an angle right at the mount of the bridge. Police reports indicated that the car had to be traveling at a relatively high speed for the vehicle to have both flipped and ended up quite a ways out into the pond. The car was a heavy 1967 Oldsmobile Delmond 88.

After flipping the car, while it began to sink, Kennedy was somehow able to escape. He claimed in his statement that he attempted many time to fight a strong current and dark, murky water to try to rescue Kopechne. Kennedy, having been raised around the ocean, was a strong swimmer. Poucha Pond is a tidal pond, with the water flowing into the Edgartown Harbor. However, despite his comments on the problematic currents, after failing to retrieve Kopechne with his two friends, he swam an entire mile across the pond back to his hotel in Edgartown.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
A diver retrieving Kopechne’s body. How Stuff Works.

9. Kennedy Passed At Least Four Homes Where He Could Have Asked for Help

Senator Kennedy passed numerous homes that could have potentially provided aid to the trapped Kopechne twice. After his first failure to retriever her, he rested on the bank for a short time before walking back to the party. He would have passed no fewer than four inhabited homes on his way back. The closest of which, Dike House, was owned by a woman who spoke to the press after the incident. She stated that she was home that night and had a light on until well after midnight. She is the same resident who heard a car go by at high speed near midnight. Her home had a working telephone that Kennedy could have used to call emergency services for a diver.

While Dike house was the closest, at only 150 meters from the site, Kennedy walked by three additional homes on his way back to the rented cottage. While it is not clear if these had lights on, attempts certainly could have been made to rouse the residents by knocking on doors or windows. When Kennedy arrived back at the rented cottage, he did not inform the entire party about what had happened. Instead, he pulled two close and trusted friends, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, aside to ask for their help retrieving her from the car.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Ted Kennedy’s car after it had been pulled from the pond. The Boston Globe.

8. Kennedy Walked Back to the Party and Only Asked Two Friends for Help

Rather than alerting anyone at the no fewer than four homes he passed, or even his own group of party-goers at his rented cabin, Senator Kennedy quietly pulled aside two of his closest and most trusted friends to share news of what he had done and to ask for aid. The first was his cousin, Joseph Gargan, who had been raised as a Kennedy and was extremely close to the family. It was Gargan who planned the party, hoping to uplift Kennedy’s spirits after a hard year that included the assassination of his older brother, Robert. The second, Paul F. Markham was a school friend of Kennedy’s who had served as the US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts until earlier that year, when he resigned to go into private practice.

Both Gargan and Markham rushed with Kennedy back to the site of the accident and attempted to find Kopechne. After their efforts failed, Kennedy stated that they drove him to the ferry landing. All three men were lawyers and reportedly conferred on how to proceed regarding the incident around a public phone booth at the ferry landing. Gargan and Markham both encouraged Kennedy to immediately report the incident to the authorities, which he reportedly stated he would do before jumping into the water to swim back to his hotel in Edgartown.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Senator Ted Kennedy returning from Kopechne’s funeral with his wife on July 22, 1969. Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Patch.

7. After Failing to Save Kopechne, the Men Left Without Alerting Anyone

Joe Gargan, Senator Kennedy’s cousin, and Paul F. Markham, a school friend and prominent attorney, encouraged Kennedy to alert the authorities immediately. Kennedy stated he would and directed the two men to return to the party to get the women off the island. He asked that Kopechne’s friends not be informed of her death, as he reportedly feared that they would attempt to run to the scene and try to rescue her, which could lead to further tragedy. Gargan and Markham agreed to this, while still encouraging Kennedy to alert the authorities.

Ted Kennedy reportedly agreed to alert authorities before diving into the water to swim back to his hotel in Edgartown. Both men reported that Kennedy was sobbing and borderline crazed before he jumped into the water. The men both later stated to authorities that they believed Kennedy would alert the authorities and assumed he had done so once he returned to his hotel, so neither contacted the authorities themselves. When Gargan and Markham returned to the party around 2 a.m. in their rental car, they told the partygoers that Kennedy had returned to his hotel and that Kopechne was probably at her hotel, despite their knowledge of the truth.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Harbor View Hotel & Resort Edgartown Harbor. Harbor View/Washington Life.

6. Kennedy Went Back to Chappaquiddick the Next Morning as Though Nothing Happened

Senator Kennedy did not report the accident to police on the night of July 18th, as he had promised Joe Gargan and Paul F. Markham he would. He did have time, around 2:45 that morning, to complain to the hotel front desk about a loud party, however. Ted Kennedy reportedly engaged in casual banter about a sailing race in the hotel the next morning. When Gargan and Markham arrived and discovered that he had not called the authorities, there was a loud enough conversation in his hotel room that other guests reported it as “heated.” Kennedy reportedly told the two men that, during the night, he believed they would arrive in the morning to say that Kopechne had miraculously escaped and survived.

The three men embarked back across the ferry to Chappaquiddick Island, where Kennedy made multiple phone calls, none of which were to the authorities. Instead, he called lawyers and friends for advice, including his long-term girlfriend whom he asked for the number of a favored family attorney. Kennedy was still at the payphone when a local confronted him and asked him if he knew they’d found a dead girl in his car. Kennedy also saw a tow truck and chain for retrieval of the vehicle, along with diving equipment, being ferried to the island. His friends reported that Kennedy still didn’t seem to understand the severity of the incident.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Ted Kennedy and his wife leaving a court hearing. Reader’s Digest.

5. Kennedy Confessed to Being the Driver 10 Hours After the Accident

After being confronted yet again with a local telling him a dead girl had been discovered in his car, Senator Kennedy finally went to the Edgartown police station around 10 a.m. on July 19th, at least 10 hours after he claimed the accident took place. His cousin, Joe Gargan, was dispatched to tell the boiler room girls, still sleeping at the rented cabin, about what had occurred. Paul F. Markham stayed with Kennedy at the police station, where he was treated with deference and respect by the local chief of police who immediately recognized him as both his Senator and a Kennedy.

Kennedy didn’t answer questions but dictated a message to Markham which he turned over to the chief of police with the demand that it not be released to the public or press. The statement, in full, reads:

On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m. in Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dike Road, instead of bearing hard left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately one-half mile on Dike Road, I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge. There was one passenger with me, one Miss Mary, a former secretary of my brother Sen. Robert Kennedy. The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt. I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage, and I climbed into the backseat. I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period and then going back to my hotel room. When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Ted Kennedy outside of Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace. Refinery29.

4. Kennedy Claimed His Actions Were Due to a Concussion and Shock

One of the press’ first questions to Senator Kennedy was why he didn’t report the accident to authorities immediately. This oversight allowed for rampant speculation on if he’d been drinking, if he’d in some way harmed Kopechne, if he’d actually been driving her to a secluded place for sex, and other theories. Kennedy quickly seized on the idea that his actions were due to a head injury and shock at the accident. His official statement referred to his being exhausted and in a state of shock during the night of the incident. This was encouraged by his legal and advisory team, who quickly sought a diagnosis for a mild concussion.

Famously, when he attended Kopechne’s funeral with his wife, Joan, he was wearing a large and noticeable neck brace despite never complaining of or showing any sign of neck discomfort after the accident. However, the display worked and garnered some amount of sympathy for Kennedy who looked pale and ill when attending the funeral. Throughout his life, Kennedy heavily relied on the defense that he was in shock and confused by a head injury after the accident, and always denied that alcohol played any role in his behavior. Even in his televised statement to the nation, he blamed a “jumble of emotions.”

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Ted Kennedy’s car in the pond. The Vineyard Gazette.

3. Kennedy Was Never Charged with Manslaughter

The Edgartown Police Chief, James Arena, took Kennedy’s initial statement and met with him in the Edgartown police station the morning he confessed. Arena did his best to be helpful and supportive to Senator Kennedy, immediately recognizing him as one of the Kennedys. He put no pressure on Kennedy and did not ask any awkward questions about his conduct the previous night. He accepted Kennedy’s written statement, which was dictated to Paul F. Markham and agreed not to release it to the press or public. Arena held to this promise for several days but was eventually forced to release it due to both Kennedy’s ongoing silence and intense media scrutiny.

Arena later did the absolute minimum the law required of him, which was filing a charge of fleeing the scene of an accident. With no autopsy being ordered and only the barest of investigations into the crash, there was no evidence to go ahead with a charge of manslaughter. Kennedy pled guilty to leaving the scene, and the judge, who evidently was fully aware of the Kennedy family’s legacy, gave him the lightest sentence possible under the law which he further suspended. He referenced Kennedy’s spotless record and that the public would punish him enough.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
Senator Kennedy addressing the nation in the Summer of 1969. ABC News.

2. Ted Kennedy Didn’t Address His Constituents Until Six Days After the Accident

Kennedy’s star-studded legal and advisory team, which included former US District Attorney Paul F. Markham and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, long advised that Kennedy should keep quiet, fearing that any holes in his story would become clear if he spoke publicly. Kennedy was also in poor emotional shape, sobbing and growing sensitive when discussing the incident. His team instead focused on ensuring the Kopechne’s were satisfied with the coverage and Kennedy’s response, as his legal ramifications were mainly in their hands.

However, after several days of unimpeded media coverage, much of which was unfavorable to Kennedy, he was forced to address the nation. The speech, which broadcast at 7:30 on the evening of July 25th, the same day he pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, was primarily written by long-time Kennedy family speechwriter Ted Sorenson, who reportedly ghost-wrote John F. Kennedy’s famed book Profiles in Courage. The speech claimed that he had not been drinking, that he engaged in no immoral conduct, and once again reiterated that shock and brain damage had caused his actions. The speech ended in a somewhat self-promotional note both for Kennedy and Sorenson, with a quote from Profiles in Courage.

What Really Happened during the Chappaquiddick Incident When Ted Kennedy was Blamed for a Death
A Time Magazine cover about the Chappaquiddick incident. Time.

1. The Story Was So Flimsy That Authorities Opened an Inquest Five Months Later

There were so many holes and unanswered questions in Kennedy’s story that the Edgartown police convened an inquest into the accident in January of 1970. Kennedy’s lawyers requested that the inquiry be conducted in secrecy, which the Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed to. Judge James A. Boyle presided over the inquest, which released a 763-page transcript four months later. The investigation found that Kennedy was not attempting to reach the ferry but intentionally turned down the dike road, that he was likely operating his vehicle negligently, and that his actions contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

These findings were substantial enough that a warrant could have been issued for Kennedy’s arrest, but no warrant was ever ordered. Both the prosecutor and the judge declined to pursue further legal actions against Kennedy. The Kopechne family also refused to pursue any legal action, having already received a sum of over $90,000 from Kennedy personally and $50,000 from a life insurance policy. So, despite the findings of the inquest and the unanswered questions from Kennedy’s patchy story, he was never charged with anything more than leaving the scene of an accident in the death of a bright young political mind.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The True Story of Ted Kennedy’s Manslaughter Is Even More Messed Up Than Hollywood Will Show You” Melissa Sartore, Ranker. N.d.

“Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick Incident: What Really Happened” Sarah Pruitt, History. April 2018.

“Why Every Liberal Should See ‘Chappaquiddick'” Owen Gleiberman, Variety. April 2018.

“Chappaquiddick Incident” – Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 2018.