Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne

Following a party on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, U.S. senator Edward M. Kennedy accidentally drove his vehicle off a narrow bridge and into several feet of water. The car overturned and trapped passenger Mary Jo Kopechne underwater. She drowned, and Kennedy failed to report the accident immediately to police. The accident not only ended the life of a young woman but also raised questions about Kennedy’s character and judgment, thus defeating any hopes he could become president of the United States.

Summary of Event

The annual Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta has been an event eagerly awaited by sailors and sailing enthusiasts since 1924. U.S. senator Ted Kennedy had missed the regatta in 1968 because of the assassination of his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in June. The regatta features racing for different classes of boats and also social events, and it has many long-term participants, including the Kennedys, who have sailed in the regatta for years. [kw]Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne, Senator Edward (July 18, 1969)
[kw]Kopechne, Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo (July 18, 1969)
Kennedy, Edward M.
[p]Kennedy, Edward M.;and Chappaquiddick[Chappaquiddick]
Chappaquiddick incident
Kopechne, Mary Jo
Kennedy, Edward M.
[p]Kennedy, Edward M.;and Chappaquiddick[Chappaquiddick]
Chappaquiddick incident
Kopechne, Mary Jo
[g]United States;July 18, 1969: Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne[01300]
[c]Public morals;July 18, 1969: Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne[01300]
[c]Law and the courts;July 18, 1969: Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne[01300]
[c]Government;July 18, 1969: Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne[01300]
[c]Politics;July 18, 1969: Senator Edward Kennedy’s Driving Accident Kills Mary Jo Kopechne[01300]
Gargan, Joseph F.
Markham, Paul F.
Arena, Dominick James
Dinis, Edmund S.

Officials pull Senator Ted Kennedy’s car out of the water off Chappaquiddick Island. Mary Jo Kopechne died in the accident.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the Wianno senior division, Kennedy would be racing the Victura, which had been sailed over from Hyannis Port by Joseph F. Gargan, Kennedy’s cousin and an attorney, and Paul F. Markham, a U.S. attorney. On August 18, Kennedy was picked up at the Martha’s Vineyard airport by his chauffeur, John Crimmins. Crimmins brought Kennedy’s 1967 car, an Oldsmobile Delmont 88, to the island on the ferry. Along with racing, the weekend was marked as a celebration of thanks for a group of young women who had worked for Robert Kennedy. For the Friday evening cookout, Gargan had rented a cottage on the small island of Chappaquiddick, one hundred fifty yards across the channel from Edgartown.

The Wianno senior division started mid-afternoon, and Kennedy came in ninth. Following a small party to congratulate the winner, Kennedy returned to his room at the Shiretown Inn. After changing from sailing togs, he took the two-car ferry, the On Time, for the four-minute crossing to Chappaquiddick. There he joined the party. At approximately 11:15 p.m., Kennedy left the party with Mary Jo Kopechne, Robert’s former administrative assistant, in his car. He had hoped to catch the ferry before it closed for the evening, but he took a wrong turn after leaving the drive to the cottage. Instead of heading toward the ferry, he found himself on Dike Road, a dirt road leading to Dike Bridge over Poucha Pond. Kennedy drove off the narrow bridge into six to eight feet of water and blacked out briefly but was able to swim to the surface. According to his testimony, he dove down into the water repeatedly to try to rescue Kopechne, who was trapped in the overturned car. The water’s current, though, kept him from reaching her. Some time later, he walked back to the cottage to get help, inexplicably passing cottages that were obviously occupied.

When Kennedy reached the cottage where the party had been held that night, he asked Gargan and Markham to help him attempt another search for Kopechne; they tried but failed to find her. Subsequently, Gargan and Markham advised Kennedy to immediately contact the police; Kennedy said he would do so from Edgartown. Because the ferry was no longer running, he dove into the channel and swam to Edgartown. He spent the rest of the night at the Shiretown Inn.

The following morning, Kennedy’s demeanor made it seem that nothing unusual had happened. He took the ferry to Chappaquiddick, found a telephone, and made a series of calls. Again urged by Gargan and Markham, he crossed back to Edgartown to report the accident at police headquarters, almost ten hours after he drove off the bridge with Kopechne. Police Chief Dominick James Arena was not at the station: He was at Dyke Bridge, investigating a car (Kennedy’s) spotted in the water by two fishermen. Arena tried but could not inspect the car’s interior because of the water’s powerful current, so he contacted John Farrar, a skin diver, who found Kopechne’s body in the car. Her hands had been gripping the car seat and her body had been arched as if trying to get air. Deputy medical examiner David R. Mills would later determine that she had died from drowning.

Arena contacted the state vehicle registry to find the car’s owner. After learning the owner was Ted Kennedy, he tried to find the senator and was surprised to discover him in his office at police headquarters. Kennedy informed Arena that he was the driver of the car and that the only other occupant was Kopechne. With Markham’s help, Kennedy prepared a statement, but by this time, rumors had been circulating and the press was beginning to gather.

Kennedy called Kopechne’s parents, Joseph and Gwen Kopechne, and told them of the accident, failing to mention that he was the one who had been driving the car. He gave instructions to Gargen and Markham to recover Kopechne’s body. It was then embalmed and flown off the island on July 20. Kopechne’s friends were told about her death and encouraged to return home. Kennedy relocated to Hyannis Port and went into seclusion. On July 22, with his wife, Joan, his sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, and others, he flew to Pennsylvania to attend Kopechne’s burial service at St. Vincent’s Church in Plymouth. In Edgartown, on July 25, he pleaded guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident.

Following Kennedy’s initial statement, Arena continued his investigation of the accident and consulted Walter Steele, special prosecutor for Dukes County District Court, concerning the appropriate charge. Unable to prove that Kennedy had been driving to endanger or driving drunk, Steele could not justify a charge of manslaughter; consequently, Kennedy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident. At the hearing, Steele suggested Kennedy be incarcerated for two months and that this sentence be suspended. Edgartown District Court judge James A. Boyle, unaware of Kennedy’s three previous driving convictions, followed Steele’s suggestion but added one year of probation, citing Kennedy’s supposed unblemished record. The hearing lasted seven minutes.

The following evening, on national television, Kennedy addressed the citizens of Massachusetts and explained the circumstances of the accident, his actions, and his inexplicable failure to immediately report the accident. He also asked the people of Massachusetts whether he should remain their senator or step down. The fourteen-minute speech, written by John F. Kennedy’s speech writer, Ted Sorenson, led to much support from Massachusetts voters. The voters would support Kennedy, even though there remained several unanswered questions. Why did Kennedy delay in reporting the accident? Why did he not mention the party on Chappaquiddick in his initial statement? Why was an autopsy not ordered?

The state’s Southern District attorney Edmund S. Dinis requested an inquest into Kopechne’s death and petitioned for the exhumation and autopsy of her body. However, the Kopechne family, with the spiritual guidance of Cardinal Richard Cushing Cushing, Richard of Boston, filed their own petition to bar the autopsy. Judge Bernard C. Brominski Brominski, Bernard C. of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, upheld their petition. Between January 5 and 8, 1970, the inquest, barred to the public, was held in Edgartown, with Judge Boyle presiding. Kennedy and twenty-six witnesses testified. Boyle found no reason to issue an arrest warrant or recommend further action. In March, Leslie H. Leland, the foreman for the Edgartown grand jury, requested that a special session be convened to investigate Kopechne’s death. At this session on April 6-7, four witnesses were called. No indictments were issued, however, and Dinis declared the case closed.


The accident and its aftermath put the media into a frenzy. At one point, more than four hundred fifty journalists had arrived on the overcrowded island, demanding information. Although Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and then addressed the people of Massachusetts to explain his behavior, many felt the whole truth was not being told. Some were astounded that Kennedy’s only penalty was the loss of his driver license for six months. Others were sure various authorities had been paid off to keep silent about the matter.

Voters of Massachusetts continued to support Kennedy and the mystique he represented. Some of his advisers felt time would lessen the impact of his failure to report the accident and that the incident would fade from the public consciousness. This did not happen. An important figure in the Democratic Party, Kennedy had been slated to be the next brother of the family to seek the Oval Office. However, each time he came close to getting the Democratic nomination for the presidency (such as in 1976 and 1980), Chappaquiddick awakened. The American public could not forget that Kennedy had left a young woman in his car. Kopechne would die alone, in the darkness. Kennedy, Edward M.
[p]Kennedy, Edward M.;and Chappaquiddick[Chappaquiddick]
Chappaquiddick incident
Kopechne, Mary Jo

Further Reading

  • Clymer, Adam. Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1999. One chapter is devoted to Chappaquiddick. The effects of the accident are detailed in subsequent chapters.
  • Damore, Leo. Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-up. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988. A detailed discussion of all elements of the incident, including Kennedy’s statement regarding the accident, his televised explanation of the accident, and the inquest.
  • Kappel, Kenneth R. Chappaquiddick: What Really Happened. New York: Shapolsky, 1989. An account biased against Kennedy. The author proposes a theory accounting for inconsistency in the evidence.
  • McGinniss, Joe. The Last Brother. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Provides insight into Kennedy’s life, focusing on family expectations and the events of the 1960’s.
  • Olsen, Jack. The Bridge at Chappaquiddick. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. A factual account of the tragedy. Olsen suggests Kennedy was not driving the car at the time of the accident.

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