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Chappaquiddick: A history lesson 50 years later

The scene at the bridge the day after the crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne.
The scene at the bridge the day after the crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. (Globe File)

Fifty years ago Friday, a fatal crash on Chappaquiddick Island changed the course of Massachusetts US Senator Edward M. “Teddy” Kennedy’s political career. Here’s a quick briefing on what happened, compiled from the Globe’s archives.

Who was Kennedy in 1969?

Ted Kennedy was a rising star from a political dynasty. In 1960, the United States elected his older brother John F. Kennedy as president. He served in the role until his assassination in 1963. Robert F. Kennedy, another brother, was assassinated during his 1968 presidential campaign. In 1969, many thought Ted Kennedy, the youngest brother of the family, was destined to be president.

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What happened in Chappaquiddick?

On the night of Friday, July 18, 1969, Kennedy drove his black Oldsmobile off a narrow bridge into Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island, an extension of the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy said he and Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy, had left a cookout for Kennedy staffers on Chappaquiddick to catch a ferry back to the main body of Martha’s Vineyard, when he accidentally took a wrong turn that led him to the bridge. While Kennedy escaped through the driver’s window, the 28-year-old Kopechne drowned.

It was not Kennedy’s first brush with death. In 1964, his private plane had crashed approaching an airport in Western Massachusetts, killing the pilot and an aide. Kennedy survived and was hospitalized for six months. Dominick J. Arena, the police chief of the Martha’s Vineyard town of Edgartown, which encompasses Chappaquiddick, said that when he learned that the car in the pond belonged to Kennedy, he thought, “My God, another Kennedy.”

What was the mystery surrounding the accident?

Kennedy did not report the accident until sometime after 9 a.m. on July 19, 1969, according to Arena. The 10-hour delay in reporting was perhaps one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Kennedy. He told police that he had repeatedly dived into the pond in search of Kopechne — including with the help of his cousin Joseph Gargan and former US attorney Paul Markham — but to no avail.

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A week after the accident, in an emotional television appearance, Kennedy asked Massachusetts residents for their help in deciding whether he should resign. He described not reporting the incident as “indefensible” but rebuffed speculation about any “immoral conduct,” denying an affair between him and Kopechne and any driving under the influence.

He attributed his delay in reporting the accident to exhaustion and shock. Numerous contradictions and inconsistencies — as pointed out by official inquiries and by the Globe’s Spotlight team in 1974 — remain unresolved. The Spotlight team reported that Kennedy was given special treatment by the prosecution, who altered routine investigative and judicial procedure to Kennedy’s benefit.

What were the official findings at the time on the incident?

Officials charged Kennedy with leaving the scene of a fatal accident. He pleaded guilty and received the minimum penalty of a suspended two-month sentence. At the hearing, District Court Judge James Boyle said, “He has already been, and will continue to be, punished far beyond any sentence this court can impose.”

A year later, Boyle issued an inquest report that found Kennedy drove negligently, which appeared “to have contributed” to Kopechne’s death. He also said Kennedy did not intend to drive to the ferry landing and had intentionally turned down the road that led to the bridge.

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How did the case affect Kennedy’s political career?

Boyle’s inquest report challenging Kennedy’s account of the story did not appear to affect the senator’s popularity in the state. While many doubted Kennedy’s story, he still enjoyed high rankings in the polls and was reelected in Massachusetts in November 1970 by a large margin.

But the incident marred Kennedy’s presidential prospects. When Kennedy dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 1976, he said Chappaquiddick did not inform his decision but said it would have become an issue in the campaign. He ran in the 1980 presidential primaries but lost to incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

The personal and political losses endured by Kennedy appear to have strengthened his resolve to improve society. He made a name for himself as the “last lion” of the Senate, a fierce champion of liberal causes — especially health care reform — who also effectively collaborated across the aisle.

Kennedy ultimately served in office for 47 years, until his death from brain cancer in 2009, at the age of 77.


Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Materials from the Boston Globe archives were used in this report.