On July 19, 1969, American news networks dropped a bombshell of a story.
Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, brother of deceased President John F. Kennedy, had been involved in a car crash that had resulted in a young woman’s death. Now, the 37-year-old Massachusetts senator was caught up in a criminal investigation, and could potentially face serious charges.
As the inquiry continued and further details on the incident were released to the public, the story that emerged was a truly confusing one.
The evening before the story broke (July 18, 1969), Kennedy had hosted a small party at a cottage on Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of Massachusetts. The party was attended by a group of women who had worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign the previous year, as well as several of Kennedy’s friends, relatives, and staff. The festivities lasted well into the night and, by many accounts, most of the guests had been drinking.
According to Kennedy’s testimony after the incident, he left the party at approximately 11:15 pm, accompanied by 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. After retrieving the keys to his Oldsmobile Delmont 88 from his chauffeur, Kennedy and Kopechne departed for the ferry station on the far side of the island.
A short time later, having gotten lost in the dark, they approached Dike Bridge, a sharply-angled wooden structure leading to a deserted beach. At the time, the bridge was not equipped with a guard rail, and, given that Kennedy claimed to have been driving at roughly 20 miles per hour, it would have been impossible for him to safely cross.
Realizing that he wouldn’t be able to make the turn, Kennedy frantically slammed on the brakes, losing control of the car and sending it plummeting into the water below.
Although dazed by the impact, Kennedy was able to free himself and swim to shore. Mary Jo Kopechne wasn’t as lucky.
Following the crash, she became trapped in the back seat and was unable to free herself, ultimately perishing inside the car.
What Really Happened?
With no witnesses save Kennedy himself, it is difficult to construct a full narrative of what actually took place following the crash. However, in his testimony, Kennedy claimed to have returned to the vehicle several times to look for Kopechne but eventually became so exhausted that he was forced to abandon the search.
Shortly after this, he returned on foot to the house where the party was held—bypassing several other houses where he could have called for help—and asked the other men in attendance to come search with him. Despite their best efforts, they too were unable to locate Kopechne inside the car. The men, several of whom were lawyers, left the scene and brought Kennedy to the ferry station, where they discussed his legal options. Kennedy, suffering from a combination of shock, grief, and possibly a mild concussion, insisted that he would contact the authorities himself.
He then returned to his hotel and fell asleep without doing so.
Kennedy waited almost a full day to report the incident, and by the time authorities were notified, Kopechne’s body had already been recovered from the wreck by a rescue diver.
It was this significant delay that aroused suspicions regarding Kennedy’s credibility.
In his televised statement during the investigation, Kennedy maintained his innocence, denying rumors that he had been intoxicated or acting inappropriately towards Kopechne before the crash. He also admitted that his delayed report was inexcusable, but defended himself by citing his concussion and extreme emotional distress at the time.
Further complicating things, John Farrar, the diver who recovered the body, gave a disturbing account of what actually happened to Kopechne following the crash. “She didn’t drown. She died of suffocation in her own air void. It took her at least three or four hours to die,” Farrar stated during his testimony. “I could have had her out of that car twenty-five minutes after I got the call. But he didn’t call.”
Despite this, the medical examiner deemed that the cause of death was an accidental drowning, and returned the body to Kopechne’s family without performing an autopsy. Subsequent requests to exhume the body were denied.
Given his exemplary public record, Kennedy was charged only with fleeing the scene of an accident, and received a two-month jail sentence, which was then suspended. Although further charges could have been brought against him, the presiding judge declined to do so, and Kennedy’s civil penalties were also similarly reduced.
Legacy Of Chappaquiddick
Needless to say, a whole host of conspiracy theories quickly sprung up surrounding the incident. Allegations of all kinds were leveled at Kennedy and his companions, and satire ran rampant in the mainstream media mere days after the story was released.
Although Kennedy ultimately avoided facing any serious charges, rumors and speculation about the night of the crash continued to haunt him for the remainder of his career. The issues came up several times during his 1979 presidential campaign, and many experts suggest that were it not for the specter of Chappaquiddick, Kennedy may well have secured himself a place in the White House.
Now, even 50 years after that fateful night, the legacy of Chappaquiddick lives on. According to an Associated Press interview with Patrick Maney, a professor of history at Boston College, “The phenomenon of the personal becoming political began with Chappaquiddick. There was something different in American politics after Chappaquiddick than there was before.”
Even after all this time, many questions still linger.
What really took place that night on the bridge?
Was Kennedy’s delay in notifying authorities truly caused by emotional distress, or something more sinister?
And, perhaps most importantly, was justice truly served for the events of that night?