12 July 2022

Will a powerful man ever have to face justice? Ted Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne & Chap­paquiddick 1969

Sen Edward Kennedy in a neck brace,  
after Chappa­quidd­ick July 1969,

U.S senator from Massach­usetts Ted Kennedy (1932–2009) was the last surviving son of Joseph Kennedy. After the wartime death of Joseph Jr and the assassin­ations of John and Robert, Ted was the family’s last hope for a run at the presidency. [I had liked the 3 brothers and hoped they did very well].

Back in July 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy’s car drove off a bridge at midnight, killing a young passenger. Mary Jo Kopechne was 28 when she was partying on Chap­paquiddick Island near Martha’s Vine­­­yard Mass. Joined by her friends from Sen Robert Kenn­edy’s pres­id­ential camp­aign, Kopechne was becoming known in Dem­o­cr­at­ic circ­les, working for a Florida senator bef­ore moving to Kennedy’s staff.

Mary Jo Kopechne, 1962

As host, Ted brought the women together with a Kennedy cousin, Joseph Gargan and ex-U.S Att­orney for Mass., Paul Markham. But by late that night, the fest­ivities became tragic: Kenn­edy’s car over­turned on a sm­all bridge and landed in the water after midnight. While Kennedy sur­v­iv­ed, his pas­senger Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. 

Deputy Sherriff Christopher Look was driving back to his Chappa­qu­id­dick home when he saw a dark car with a confused looking driv­er. Look parked his car to see if the driver needed help, but the driver took off and went down Dike Road to the bridge. Next morning, when he went to see the accident on Dike Bridge and saw Ted’s car overturned in the water, Look knew it was the same car he saw last night. The 90-minute time diff­er­ence between 11:15 PM, when Ted said the accident occurred, and 12:45 AM, when Look said he saw the senator’s car, was never explained.

The Senator said he tried desperately to pull Mary Jo out of the submerged car, but when he failed, he walked back to the party at 1.30 AM. Was Kennedy drink-driv­ing? What were he and Kopechne doing together at midnight? 

What Mary Jo’s parents didn’t under­st­and were how Gargan and Mark­ham, Kennedy’s aides who also tried to retrieve Mary Jo from the car after the accident, also didn’t report the accident. Not only that; these aides let the senator return to his hotel at 2.30 AM to sleep. A parental nightmare.

Why did Kennedy contact the local police only after 10 hours, to re­port the accident? He claimed he was suf­f­ering from physical pain and emotional shock, and not thinking clearly. Did he have concuss­ion? There was talk of a cover-up, of Kennedy and his press team silencing the incident so as not to harm his political life.  Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena wrote up Ted’s statement the next morning and charged him with "leaving the scene of the ac­c­id­ent". He too wondered why the Senator left Mary Jo in the car for 10 long hours.

An already divert­ed news media provided Ted’s team with time for damage control, and further obscured the events. Still, the Kennedy-Kopechne story event­ually burst out. The media’s desperation for more details grew, particularly details about parties with successful married men and gifted single women. Kop­ech­ne was an intell­ig­ent, strong woman who worked for the Bobby Ken­nedy campaign in a signif­icant role. So why did Dukes County Dis­trict Attorney Edmund Dinis not go ahead with the autopsy he wanted? A young healthy woman dying in horrid circumstances with no witness DEMANDED an autopsy.

The scene of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s fatal car accident 
Pulling the car out of the water

Deputy Sherriff Christopher Look was driving back to his Chappa­qu­iddick home when he saw a dark car with a confused driv­er. Look parked his car, to see if the driver needed help, but the car quickly took off and went on Dike Rd toward the bridge. Next morning, when he went to see the car accident on Dike Bridge and saw Ted’s car overturned in the water, Look knew it was the same car he'd seen at night. The 90-minute time diff­er­ence between 11:15 PM, when Ted said the accident occurred, and 12:45 AM, when Look said he saw the senator’s car, was never explained.

Kennedy eventually appeared in court and pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving an accident scene. Judge James Boyle sentenced Kennedy to the minimum punishment for the offence, 2 months’ gaol. The judge said Kennedy would be punished forever, far beyond anything the court could impose, so justice would be satis­fied by the imp­osition and suspens­ion of the minimum gaol sentence. Plus he lost his driv­er’s licence for six months!!

Since the court was closed to the media, they gathered outside the 
court house doors.
Reader's Digest

The inquest was closed to the press and public by order of the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court on a petition by Kennedy's lawyers. The state high court also decreed that the records of the inquest could not be made public as long as Kennedy faced any danger of criminal charg­es. Kennedy later made a televised speech about the accident but since then, the Chappaquiddick drowning was used often as a moral whip by conserv­at­ives. Kennedy had served as a U.S senator from Mass.­ since 1962 (until his death in 2009), but was it the end of his hop­es for the presid­ency forever?

Film director John Curran attemp­ted to capture the media coverage by mixing ar­ch­iv­al news footage and newspaper headlines. His film also emphasised the strain it put on Joan Kennedy who was pregnant then, eventually suf­fering a mis­carriage which she blamed on the crisis. Yet she believ­ed her husband and paid no att­ention to allegations that Kennedy & Mary Jo weren’t merely swimming. Really? 

Many decades later, Mary Joe’s cousins received a letter in 2018 about Ch­ap­paquiddick. The author got the information years earlier from a wom­an who was at the party when Mary Jo died. Mary Jo drank too much the night of the accident and felt poorly, so “Betty” laid her down in the back seat. Then “Betty” went back to the cabin. When Ted went for a drive with an­other woman, neither of them realised who was in the back seat. When the car went off the brid­ge, Ted and his companion esc­aped and returned to the party in all innocence. Only once they all real­ised what had happened was Ted was informed about Mary Jo.

Ted still decided to run as Demo­cr­atic presidential candidate in 1980 against Jimmy Carter. Yet the drowning tragedy became a lasting blot on Kennedy’s political car­eer, scandal haunt­ing him and the Dem­­ocr­at­s for decades. In his auto­biography True Comp­ass 2009, Ken­n­edy said HE had let himself, his family and the country down in Chap­paquid­dick.
Thank you Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian


Joe said...

How could they not test the young woman to see how she died - drowning, suffocation, alcohol, drugs, pre-existing condition? How could they not test the Senator for drugs, alcohol, concussion and worse? Shame on the medical profession.

Deb said...

Did Senator Kennedy ever apologise to Mary Jo's parents, or at least try to explain how they lost their beautiful daughter? If it were my daughter, I would sue the Kennedy family for the rest of my life.

Hels said...


Edward Kennedy appeared on television to explain what had happened. He said: my conduct and conversations during the next several hours to the extent that I can remember them make no sense to me at all. Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical, emotional trauma brought on by the accident. The fact that I did not report the accident to the police immediately was indefensible. At the inquest Judge James Boyle raised doubts about Kennedy's testimony, presumably because the doctors were Kennedy doctors and not neutral.

Joseph Kopechne said he and his wife rejected an autopsy later because "we were led to believe that the autopsy was primarily to find out if my daughter was pregnant." But surely the Judge would have explained to the Kopechnes why an autopsy was legally required.

Hels said...


Clearly there was no apology. In 1989 Mary Jo's parents broke 20 years of silence to talk about their daughter's drowning in Sen. Edward Kennedy's car. They indicated they were still enraged by Kennedy's failure to call police immediately after his car plunged off the Dyke Bridge in July 1969.

A few days after the incident, Kennedy told a television reporter he somehow freed himself from the submerged car and attempted unsuccessfully to rescue Kopechne, who was sleeping in the back seat of the car. He returned to a party on Martha's Vineyard and sent two aides to attempt to rescue Mary Jo. Frustrated, Kennedy did not contact police until the next morning. "He was worried about himself, not Mary Jo," said an angry 76-year-old Joseph Kopechne. None of the other girls, all experienced Kennedy campaign workers, ever spoke out on their daughter's death. All of them were shut up. There was a big cover-up and everybody was paid off.

The Kopechnes, who received a settlement of $90,904 from Kennedy and $50,000 from his insurance company, say they did not regret that they didn't sue the senator.

RON DEVLIN, The Morning Call, Jun 17, 1989

Fun60 said...

I'd not heard the story about 'Betty' putting Jo in the back of the car. If that was true why on earth didn't that story come to light earlier. The Kennedy's had enough money to silence whoever they wanted.

Hels said...


The Daily Mail article about Mary Joe’s cousins receiving a letter in 2018 might have been total nonsense. Or partially truthful. After all, there were only a few women at the party when Mary Jo died and it should have been easy to locate "Betty" and check it more directly. So I am not holding my breath waiting for the truth from that source.

But the Daily Mail was correct about Ted Kennedy going on to win re-election to the Senate seven times _after_ the fatal crash, and was holding the office when he died in 2009. Clearly the electorate trusted him totally.

Unknown said...

Nor have I heard about Betty being in the back seat of the car. Very strange. I've never had a doubt there was a cover up and lies were told.

Amazon said...

"Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up", 1988 by Leo Damore, Regnery Publishing. Senatorial Privilege almost didn't get printed after its original publisher, Random House, judged it too explosive and backed out of its contract. No other big New York publisher wanted to touch it.

"Chappaquiddick: Power, Privilege and the Ted Kennedy Cover-Up", 2018 by Leo Damore, Regnery History. This new edition, Chappaquiddick, was released 30 years after the original Senatorial Privilege.

Hels said...


I _never_ thought for a moment that Mary Jo's death was intentional. I am sure that the Senator just wanted a night of fun, well away from his pregnant wife.

But in intending to protect Ted Kennedy's behaviour, the lies took over, increased and spread the cover-up way beyond the limits of tiny Chappaquiddick. Once the news went national and international, a lot of perfectly professional people (police, lawyers, judges, pathologists, journalists etc) were prevented from delving properly into the tragedy.

Hels said...


Thank you... I love both titles: "Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up" and "Chappaquiddick: Power, Privilege and the Ted Kennedy Cover-Up".

And I am not surprised that no respectable publishing company wanted to publish the first book (1988). They were still calling it the Chappaquiddick Incident back then. Dropping sugar on the kitchen floor is an incident!

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde minha querida amiga. Parabéns pelo seu excelente trabalho e matéria. Não conhecia o tema.

bazza said...

The Kennedy family were both covered in magic dust and surrounded by tragedy at all times. Richard Condon's novel 'Winter Kills' describes a family clearly based on the Kennedys and hints at some shocking revelations. Joe Kennedy was a well-known anti-Brit and anti-Semite so it's a wonder that his sons did not seem to be so.

Hels said...


I was watching tv when President JF Kennedy was murdered back in 1963, so I remember the events in very sharp detail. But I don't remember the 1969 Chappaquiddick tragedy in the same instant details.

Later newspaper coverage would have helped you, but it was often biased or politicised.

Hels said...


Yes indeed. In 1938-9, while Fascist persecutions in Germany intensified, US Ambassador Joe Kennedy was strengthening his faith in Nazism. His solution to The Jewish Problem that he said he'd worked out with Chamber­lain - a plan to ship all German Jews to Africa. In Sept 1940, Kenn­edy again sought a personal meeting with Hitler because he believed he could bring about closeness between the USA and Ger­m­any. When the White House read Kennedy’s nasty pro-Nazi beliefs, did a] Roosevelt insist that Kennedy return home or b] did the new British PM Church­ill dem­and­­ that Kennedy leave the UK.

Despite their father's nasty political views, the sons' views were very democratic and progressive!

DUTA said...

The judge who said that Kennedy would be punished forever, far beyond anything the court could impose - was right.
I don't know much about Edward Kennedy's life, but I know that much - his leaving the scene of the accident, had probably badly affected his life , and the life of his family members.

Hels said...


Mary Jo Kopechne was her parents' only child. Can you imagine those poor parents - Joseph who died at 90 in 2003 and Gwen who lived to 89 years old dying in 2003. Long, lonely and very sad lives :(

You may be well right about Senator Kennedy's punishment. Unless he was totally drunk on the night of the accident and remembered nothing, he had to live the rest of his life, knowing a beautiful, young and devoted worker died at his hands.