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What Was the Chappaquiddick Incident?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Chappaquiddick Incident refers to the personal history of Senator Edward Kennedy, and his direct involvement in the death of former assistant to Robert Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy and Kopechne were in a car accident in the early hours of July 19, 1969, when Kennedy drove over the side of a small bridge called Dike Bridge, on Chappaquiddick Island, a smaller island located next to the larger Martha’s Vineyard.

Unfortunately, the car sunk after the crash, and while Kennedy was able to swim safely to shore, Ms. Kopechne was trapped in the vehicle and subsequently died. The major problem with this incident was that Kennedy failed to report his accident, Mary Jo’s death, or even to contact the police for help until the next morning. In fact, Kennedy did not report the incident until after the car was found, which to many suggests he might not have reported it at all, if the car had been found several days later.

The crash and death of Mary Jo Kopechne resulted in Kennedy receiving a suspended sentence of two months for leaving the scene of the accident after causing injury. He also lost his license for a year, and personally paid $90,000 US Dollars (USD) to Ms. Kopechne’s family. He was investigated for more serious crimes related to the Chappaquiddick Incident, including a possible DUI, which could not be proven, and the potential that he or someone else had murdered Ms. Kopechne and deliberately driven off the bridge to hide her murder. Review of the known facts, and the Kopechne family’s refusal to exhume Ms. Kopechne’s body for further study halted such investigation.

To date, Senator Kennedy insists that he was not driving under the influence, and that a wrong turn, and a poorly lighted bridge resulted in the crash. Nevertheless, he takes full responsibility for leaving the scene, failing to report to the police, and possibly by his inaction causing Ms. Kopechne’s death. He reports that he was shocked, panicked, confused and exhausted and his actions were totally inappropriate. He did not attempt to justify his actions and pled guilty to charges against him.

There have been a number of interpretations of the Chappaquiddick incident, and conspiracy theories swirl around it. Some believe Kennedy’s story implicitly, while others believe Kennedy deliberately was attempting to hide the death of Ms. Kopechne by causing the accident on purpose. The Chappaquiddick incident did not result in personal liability lawsuits by Ms. Kopechne’s family, who believed that to sue for money would be to accept blood money. There are some that believe that the wealth, power and influence of the Kennedy family was brought to bear in both the investigatory procedure, subsequent sentencing of Kennedy, and in the Kopechne family’s decision not to press charges.

While theories abound regarding the Chappaquiddick incident, there are several things that clearly resulted from it. First, the Chappaquiddick incident certainly marred Kennedy’s political career. Prior to the incident, many believed that Kennedy would seek the presidential nomination in 1972. The scandal related to the crash effectively squelched any chance of his running. Senator Kennedy did run for president against incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, but his bid was unsuccessful, and many believe his run prevented Carter from re-election, though it should be stated that Carter was very unpopular by the middle of his four-year term as president.

There are people who continue to insist that wealth and power hid the true meaning of the Chappaquiddick incident, and that Senator Kennedy got away with murder. Others defend Senator Kennedy with great force. Certainly his senate career has been marked by his liberal approach, his advocacy for the poor, and his seemingly tireless efforts to assist the poor and the middle class. He is a highly respected member of the US Senate, even by many who politically oppose his policies.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon999370 — On Dec 20, 2017

Occam's Razor: Ted Kennedy was blackout drunk and crashed the car that killed Kopechne. The car rolled and impacted the water on the side that Kopechne was sitting, likely she was knocked unconscious by the impact.

Eye witnesses stated Kennedy was eating breakfast the next morning, jovial, when aides rushed up to him took him aside and his whole demeanor changed. Even then he was such a heavier drinker he could get blackout drunk and be fine the next morning with no memory of the night before.

He concocted the story of leaving the scene and failing to report it, because the penalty for that was much less severe than drunk driving and manslaughter from an accident that caused a death.

By anon326065 — On Mar 19, 2013

I'm glad to be a good human being. Ted was a bad person. Just because he had money and power didn't mean he should have abused it. And anyone involved at the Kennedy compound who helped pull the wool over people's eyes are plain garbage to society. They should be ashamed.

What did they say: "Oh no! What do we do! Teddy killed a girl. Let's hope this blows over." Those people are crap. They are the kind of people I tell my sons to stay away from. Honor and integrity Is what they will bring into the world. Too bad the Kennedy family didn't learn about those things.

By anon80260 — On Apr 26, 2010

Ted Kennedy was a black out drunk and committed manslaughter. It's really not that complicated.

By anon46220 — On Sep 23, 2009

Teddy's departure from politics is the best thing to happen since another blowhard named O'neill retired.

By anon46218 — On Sep 23, 2009

The devil probably said: "Hi, Teddy-I've been expecting you for forty years!"

By anon43756 — On Sep 01, 2009

I just have one question: "What took so long?"

By anon43473 — On Aug 29, 2009

Fat Boy Ted is dead, hurrah!

Long live the Senator (and Presidential wannabe) from Chappaquiddick!

Brain cancer could not have possibly found a more deserving person.

By anon43219 — On Aug 26, 2009

A toast: The Kennedy family was the best entertainment their money could buy.

By anon43178 — On Aug 26, 2009

The speculation and unprovable statement that MaryJo was pregnant is unkind gossip - how in the world would you know that? She was a devout Catholic who did not have a reputation for affairs or wild living. She was *not* cremated either - she was buried.

It is terrible to make such unfound comments - you are most likely besmirching an innocent and dead girl's reputation for no reason whatsoever. You think you are making comments against Kennedy (who was 100 percent wrong here) but you are tarnishing Mary Jo's character instead. Shame on you - even *if* there were a shred of evidence for what you claim, it is still mean-spirited.

By anon38512 — On Jul 26, 2009

Police covered up,this crime. Marilyn Monroe slept with the Kennedys and was going to sell her story. She too got murdered.

By anon38511 — On Jul 26, 2009

Mary Jo Kopeckne was pregnant. Guess who the father was? Her body was cremated right away. The coroner was a Kennedy friend. The baby's bones were ground up with the mother's cremated body bones. With no evidence of the baby, someone got by with murder.

By anon37505 — On Jul 20, 2009

Direct involvement? He drove drunk off a bridge and left a girl to die. I think that is as about direct as murder gets. A girl died and Kennedy lied.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia...
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