Questions of Controversy - The Kennedy Brothers

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Chappaquiddick Tragedy Mars Kennedy Legacy

By David A. Patten   |   Wednesday, 26 Aug 2009

                       

  Read an excerpt from Questions of Controversy

 

   

 

   

                             Chapter 15

                              Chappaquiddick

 

 

      What were the true circumstances surrounding the tragedy at Chappaquiddick?

 

 

“One of the great political stories of all time.”

Investigative Reporter, Jack Anderson

“The Chappaquiddick incident had generated more publicity than any other fatal accident in the history of the United States and perhaps the world.”

Kennedy Lawyer, Edward Hanify

 

For 30 years Senator Edward M. Kennedy has been unable to avoid the taint of the ‘Chappaquiddick Scandal’. What happened that July night in 1969 effectively ended his chances of following in his brothers’ footsteps - one of whom attained the presidency and the other who fell short of his goal by five months when he too was tragically assassinated.

 

Throughout this period, Edward Kennedy has been forced to repeat his original statement that he felt guilt and remorse at the death of a young woman who had helped his brother Robert in his quest for the presidency during the 1968 election campaign. The expectations of the media, however, were different. During the 1970s and 1980s - before the public finally accepted Kennedy’s frequently stated claim that he had never had an overriding desire to be president - election campaigns had been dominated by the feeling that the Senator would finally dissemble and tell the truth about the ‘actual’ circumstances surrounding the tragedy. However, apart from his repeated statements of remorse no new revelations were forthcoming. The public had to be satisfied with dozens of theories which purported to explain the car accident and its aftermath. As Kennedy biographer Burton Hersh wrote: “...even the Chappaquiddick publicity, disastrous as it was, had been confined pretty largely to speculation about the accident.”1

 

In 1994, in his re-election bid for his Massachusetts Senate seat, Kennedy issued an oft-repeated apology for the tragedy: “I bear full responsibility for the tragedy and I always will. I have expressed my remorse to my family, the Kopechne family and the people of Massachusetts. I only wish I had the power to do more to ease the continuing pain I feel and that Mr and Mrs Kopechne feel for Mary Jo’s loss.”

 

However, allegations of a cover-up persisted and remain to this day. Amongst the many claims made about the incident a number stayed in the public’s mind:

  • Kennedy had been a reckless driver and had been responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

  • Kennedy had been having an affair with Mary Jo.

  • Kennedy had been trying to cover-up his recklessness or had indeed succeeded in covering up the truth of the accident.

  • Kennedy had attempted to escape blame by pretending he was at his hotel at the time of the accident.

  • Kennedy had asked his companions, Paul Markham and Joe Gargan, to take the blame.

  • Kennedy had allowed a girl to suffocate who had been trapped in an air bubble in the car because he failed to seek help from the emergency services.

  • Kennedy had been lying about the timing of the accident to cover-up his affair with Mary Jo.

  • Because Mary Jo did not take her hotel room key with her she had no intention of returning to her hotel.

 

The story of the Chappaquiddick incident began on the weekend when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were nearing the end of their journey to the moon. Edward Kennedy sailed his yacht to Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, to enter a race in the 46th Edgartown Yacht Club Regatta, a highlight of the yachting season and an event that the Kennedys rarely missed. A ‘cook-out’ had been planned on the tiny island next to Martha’s Vineyard called Chappaquiddick, an Indian name meaning ‘separate island’. It was a way for Edward Kennedy to keep in touch with the ‘boiler boom’ girls, so-called because they had been the centre of a group of campaign workers dedicated to Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the presidency. Among the group was a 28 year old named Mary Jo Kopechne. An RFK aide described her as ‘an unworldy girl’. Others who knew her said she was a girl with a good character who had been committed to her work, full of high idealism and excited that the Kennedys would regain the White House in the 1968 race. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination she had been devastated.

 

Contrary to the claims of some writers, the ‘boiler room’ girls were not ‘secretaries’ but professional and educated women with excellent characters and unblemished reputations. They did not travel to Martha’s Vineyard to engage in orgies nor were they invited to the party in order to be ‘available girls’ for the six men who also attended the party. If this was indeed on the minds of the men in the party it can be assumed that they would have chosen a better place - the rented cottage had no privacy and they all had private rooms in Edgartown hotels. Sworn statements have indicated the gathering was nothing more than a reunion of people who had been dedicated to the election of Robert Kennedy as president. As Rosemary Keough Redmond stated to BBC researchers in 1993: “That whole myth of this bunch of single girls being set up to married men for some other purpose, it just didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. And it wasn’t what it was about. And the relationships were not that way. So there was, you never had a feeling of concern about going somewhere...I went to Salt Lake City with Senator Edward Kennedy and Dun Gifford and I, just the three of us together and never felt threatened or concerned and...my mother didn’t worry...and my sister didn’t worry...none worried.”2

 

Furthermore, Mary Jo Kopechne, at the time of the incident, had been engaged to be married to a career foreign service officer, a fact overlooked by those authors who tried to blemish her character by insinuating she had been single, free and willing to engage in a sexual relationship with Senator Kennedy. There is no evidence that this allegation is true. The only person who can answer it is Senator Kennedy and he has stated on numerous occasions that nothing happened between them. The true facts about Mary Jo are that she was a good, observant and practising Catholic who had been enamoured with the Kennedys and believed Robert Kennedy reflected her own views about social justice and other idealistic social and political commitments. She did not smoke and rarely drank. Everyone who knew her testified to the fact that she was a woman who was almost prudish in her dislike of obscene language and sexual impropriety.

Mary Jo had been an only child and was born in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Her father had been an insurance salesman. In 1962, she graduated with a degree in business from New Jersey’s Caldwell College for Women, a small liberal arts college run by the Sisters of St. Dominic. Before moving to Washington D.C. she had taught black children in a civil rights project in Alabama.

 

Her first job in the nation’s capital was working for Senator George Smathers, a long-time friend of President Kennedy. She became respected for her work and Smathers recommended her to work on Robert Kennedy’s staff, realising as he did that Mary Jo admired the Kennedys. She was thorough and industrious and on one occasion in 1966, stayed up all night to type RFK’s speech on Vietnam in which the Senator made a clean break with Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Later, in 1968, she became dedicated to her goal of helping elect RFK president. Her whole life became politics. After RFK’s assassination she worked for a time helping Ethel Kennedy with her correspondence and joined the Southern Political Education and Action Committee, registering African-American voters in Florida. In July 1969, Mary Jo had been looking forward to the weekend on Martha’s Vineyard when she would see her old friends.

Chappaquiddick is a remote and lonely place, without stores or petrol stations and separated from the fashionable resort of Martha’s Vineyard by a sea-water channel that is about 150 yards across at its narrowest point. Seven families lived on the island year round and the summer population was under 500. The only way cars can get between Chappaquiddick and the ‘Vineyard’ is aboard a two-car ferry that shuttles back and forth between the hours of 7.30 a.m. and midnight. The ferry was kept running during special occasions sometimes till 1 a.m. or later, but only when the ferry owner had forewarning.

 

A cottage had been rented for the party, the ‘Lawrence’ cottage, situated approximately three miles from the ferry landing. It was set back from the only main road on the island and was surrounded by other vacation homes and a few which belonged to year round residents. It had been rented by Joe Gargan, Kennedy’s cousin, for 200 dollars. He had rented the cottage for eight days and he had intended to use the remaining rental period for himself and his wife for a summer vacation. However, Gargan’s wife’s mother had taken ill and she could not make the trip. There was no intention of any of the partygoers staying at the cottage. Joe Gargan had booked three rooms at the Shiretown Inn, in Edgartown, for the men in the group and rooms were booked at a motel, the Katama Shores for the women.

 

A short distance from the cottage was a dirt road which led 6/10ths of a mile downhill to a bridge which was approximately 12 feet wide. Across the bridge the road led to the remote sands of East Beach. The bridge was a hump-backed wooden structure, without rails, spanning Poucha Pond (an inlet). It was a dangerous bridge, too narrow, angled all wrong and humped up too high in the middle. Drivers had often been caught without warning as they sped down the dirt road heading for the beach. Many residents said something was bound to happen there someday. Islanders knew that anything over 15 miles an hour could result in an accident. They frowned on tourists who sped through heading for the beach, yet the area was devoid of sufficient warning signs.

After the yacht race on Friday 18th July 1969, Kennedy was driven across on the ferry by Joe Gargan and the party began at 7 p.m. The evening went well, everyone reminiscing about RFK’s presidential campaign. The group exchanged stories about the Kennedys and indulged in drink and food. The women did not really know the men in the party too well. The men in the group, apart from Edward Kennedy, were Paul Markham, former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts; Joe Gargan, Kennedy’s cousin, a lawyer; Jack Crimmins, the 63 year old Kennedy driver; Raymond LaRosa, a professional fireman and friend; and Charles C. Tretter a former Kennedy aide. The women in the group, apart from Mary Jo Kopechne were Esther Newburgh, 26; Rosemary ‘Cricket’ Keough, 23; Maryellen Lyons, 27; Anne Nance Lyons, 26; and Susan Tannenbaum, 24.

 

Shortly after 11 p.m., according to Kennedy, he slipped away to catch the last ferry to Edgartown and took the keys to the Oldsmobile from his driver, Jack Crimmins. He did not wish his departure to put an end to the party so he did not broadcast the fact. At the same time Mary Jo complained of feeling unwell and asked the Senator for a ride to her motel in Edgartown. She had left her purse and room key at the cottage.

 

The one paved road through the island is centre-lined and, where it veers left towards the ferry, it is marked with an arrow of reflecting glass. Kennedy did not follow the arrow but instead he turned right down a dirt lane called Dyke Road, which leads to Dyke Bridge and East Beach.

 

Although the entrance to Dyke Road is not immediately apparent, Kennedy had journeyed down it during the previous afternoon when he went for a swim. However, Kennedy said he turned on to this dirt road by mistake and that he was not aware he had come off the asphalt road and on to a gravel road. Contrary to some claims that said it was impossible for Senator Kennedy to mistake the turning, it is in fact not a T junction but more like a crossroads. To the left the paved road continues to the ferry. Straight ahead is a dirt road which leads to a cemetery. To the right is the road leading to the bridge.

 

The car Kennedy was driving was a 1967 Oldsmobile; the exact model was an ‘88’ also called a Delmont that year. It was a four door midsize (by American standards) family car over 18 feet long and 6½ feet wide. Like most 1967 cars it had none of the safety features we recognise today as standard - there were no seatbelts, headrests, dual-breaking system, energy-absorbing bumpers, energy-absorbing front end, door reinforcements or roof supports.

The Oldsmobile continued down the beach road towards Dyke Bridge hitting it at a speed of between 20 to 30 miles an hour. This was gauged later by experts who scientifically measured the skid marks and the location to arrive at their results. Some experts, hired by media organisations, calculated that the car had been travelling at approximately 35 miles per hour.

 

The car hit the guard rail and flipped over and on impact with the water the roof caved in. The pressure of the water acted on Kennedy, forcing him through the open driver’s window. There have been numerous examples, over the years, of drivers who had similar experiences; one such driver having been caught in a flash flood and then washed out the window of his car. However, Kennedy had no memory of how he got out. This is a telling clue as to what really happened that tragic night. Kennedy’s confusion was also the reason for his mistiming of events - he thought the accident had occurred at 11.30 p.m. - in fact it was much later more like 12.50 a.m. when tide and current conditions were consistent with Kennedy’s descriptions of the accident.

The gap of 1 to 1½ hours is difficult to explain - because of his injuries Kennedy cannot remember - but his timing of events has created a number of problems not least in the criticism he received for not going to the Malm house, situated a short distance from the bridge, on his way back to the cottage. The Malm house always had lights on before midnight. If Kennedy had walked past it at 1 a.m., however, he would not have seen any lights. And Kennedy, in his testimony, stated he saw no signs of a house with lights.

 

After Kennedy escaped from the submerged car he made a number of attempts to rescue Mary Jo. He made repeated dives but all were in vain. The current was too strong and he became exhausted. Suffering from shock and injuries sustained in the accident, he lay on the bank before returning to the cottage.

Kennedy met Ray LaRosa outside the cottage and asked him to seek Gargan and Markham. He did not wish to alarm Mary Jo’s friends. Gargan and Markham drove him back to the bridge in a rented Valiant. Both men made repeated attempts to rescue Mary Jo. According to Gargan Kennedy kept repeating: ‘I just can’t believe this happened...What am I going to do?’ Gargan said Markham had replied: ‘There’s nothing you can do.’3

 

Many years later Gargan was to tell author Leo Damore (1988) that Kennedy was so distraught and concerned about the horrible circumstances he was in that, in his state of shock, he even suggested that Gargan say he had been driving the car or that Mary Jo had been in the car alone.4

 

Finally, the group admitted failure and headed for the ferry landing. Kennedy’s two companions remained on the Chappaquiddick side while he impulsively dived into the water and swam the distance across to Edgartown. In the confusion and shock, Kennedy had been searching for some guidance and direction from his friends. As he was to say later, he believed Mary Jo may have extricated herself from the wreck and could be walking back to the cottage. His last words to his friends before diving into the water were: ‘I’ll take care of the accident and you see the girls are alright’.5 Gargan and Markham, not realising the mental breakdown Kennedy was heading for, took him at face value and believed he would head for the Edgartown police station and report the accident. Instead Kennedy returned to the Shiretown Inn and went to his room where he lay exhausted and confused trying to make some sense of what had happened. It was now 2 a.m. - 25 minutes later he walked out on to the balcony and spoke to the manager of the Inn, mumbling something about noisy guests. This has been interpreted by a number of authors as an attempt at establishing an alibi.

 

For the next five hours, alone in his room, Edward Kennedy either slept or contemplated the situation he was in. He had been in an accident with a woman who was not his wife. He may have believed Gargan and Markham had made further attempts to search for Mary Jo. According to Rose Kennedy’s secretary, Barbara Gibson (1986), this is exactly what happened. Gibson said that Joe Gargan told her that he and Markham returned to the crash site after Kennedy jumped into the water. Gargan told her he found a broken window and squeezing himself through it managed to make contact with Mary Jo’s body. Gargan could tell by “the unnatural feel that he was too late”.6 Fearing he would drown Gargan emerged from the car and returned to the cottage. Gargan waited until morning for help to arrive, believing Kennedy had reported the accident. No help came. Kennedy did not report the accident but in his own words remained in his room and willed the incident had not taken place; he needed help and advice desperately. For a United States senator it was a position which could effectively end his political career.

 

Not until morning did Kennedy report to the police station. Gargan and Markham had gone to the Shiretown Inn at 8 a.m. and were shocked when Kennedy told them he had not reported the accident. They told him it was imperative he report the accident now. But before they went to the police station they walked to the ferry landing down the street from the hotel and crossed to the Chappaquiddick side where Kennedy made a number of phone calls desperately seeking advice about how to deal with the matter. While on the ferry, the ferryman told the group that a body had been found at Dyke bridge. It was now approximately eight or more hours after the accident.

 

A short time earlier Edgartown Police Chief, Dominic Arena, had appeared at the scene of the accident and, with the assistance of scuba diver John Farrar, removed the body from the wreck. A short time later Deputy Sheriff ‘Huck’ Look arrived at the scene and told Arena that he believed the vehicle was the one he spotted the previous evening taking off at high speed when he approached the car.

 

Edward Kennedy, in a television address to his constituents, said his actions had been “irrational, indefensible and inexplicable”.7 Thirty years later the circumstances of the accident remain a puzzle to the public. But this does not mean that a logical description of what probably occurred is lost forever. From inquest documents, doctors reports, scientifically-based research and legal expertise of a number of experts there is sufficient evidence to assemble a likely scenario - without relying on fantasy and gross speculation which has so distorted this story for a generation.

 

Many writers have tried to reconstruct the events of that tragic night but most have failed. In their eagerness to propagate their pet theories they have ignored vital evidence, postulated series of actions without any firm knowledge of witness statements or forensic evidence and they have engaged in gross speculation which only served to confuse the public even further. Some reconstructed scenarios are plausible; others are downright preposterous. Many have been strong on fantasy and weak on facts. Others have demonstrated an ignorance of the geography of the island and a lack of basic knowledge of forensics, engineering and medical facts. Some authors have misinterpreted the law concluding that Kennedy committed crimes ranging from manslaughter to murder.

 

The most bizarre theories still persist to this day. Matthew Smith (1993), a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist, maintained that Edward Kennedy had been set up by conspirators as a way of destroying his chances for the presidency. Apparently the same sinister forces who had a hand in the President’s death also conspired to destroy Edward Kennedy by murdering Mary Jo. While this theory lets Kennedy off the hook it has no basis in fact and was based entirely on a misreading of the facts of the case and a construction of a theory relying solely on supposition and speculation.

 

Smith’s theory had a central weakness. If you are a politician who has been ‘framed’ for political reasons, then why not protest the fact? Surely this would be the best defence in such circumstances. However Kennedy did nothing of the sort, further adding credibility to his version of the events that tragic night. Furthermore, why would conspirators take this route to destroy Kennedy’s career when a much simpler way would be to initiate a scandal using wiretapping and surveillance techniques. Kennedy’s womanising and drinking had become an item of concern amongst the press after they had observed the Senator’s developing emotional deterioration after the murder of his brother Robert the previous year. Although the American media ignored politicians’ indiscretions in the 1960s, it was common knowledge that the press could not ignore a story which originated in the foreign press. It would have been a precursor to the 1988 Gary Hart scandal and would have been relatively easy to arrange without the complications and risks surrounding a plot of Chappaquiddick dimensions.

 

Chappaquiddick authors Thomas and Richard Tedrow (1976) make the best case for an adulterous affair between Mary Jo and Kennedy. They stated that Kennedy drove to the beach on purpose, had sex with Mary Jo and then drove off the bridge. Their most important piece of evidence in support of this claim is the grass stain which they say was found on Mary Jo’s blouse. However, the scientific evidence suggests it was a blood stain caused by bloody froth emitted from Mary Jo’s mouth and nose after the doctor at the scene examined the body.

 

Jack Olsen (1970) in his book ‘The bridge at Chappaquiddick’, said that Kennedy had left the car after encountering Deputy Sheriff Huck Look at the crossroads. Kennedy supposedly asked Mary Jo to drive so that he would not be caught for either being with her or driving whilst under the influence of alcohol. Olsen said that Kennedy began to panic and asked Mary Jo to drive down the Dyke Road. Not used to driving a large car, confused by alcohol and experiencing difficulty in reaching the pedals, she drove off the bridge. Olsen wrote: “Kennedy had done nothing illegal...but the cop kept approaching; now there was every reason to suspect that he would jump into his station wagon and speed down the Dyke road to ask them questions. Rural cops did things like that, and rural cops could be nasty...the prospect of netting Kennedy in a car with a woman other than his wife would have titillated many of them.”8

 

Olsen also stated that Kennedy was mistaken in his description of a ‘hill’ before the bridge which Kennedy said had contributed to the accident. Olsen said the ‘hill’ did not exist but photographs taken of Dyke Bridge at the time of the accident (published in ‘Time’ magazine)9 clearly show ‘hills’ or ‘mounds’ at either side of the road on the approach to the bridge. It is possible the car hit the mound and became uncontrollable.

 

The most obvious flaw in Olsen’s theory is: why would Kennedy say he was in the car when he was not? Why would he create more trouble for himself when it would have been so much easier to say he had got out of the car and only found out what happened to Mary Jo the next morning? And Olsen cannot account for Kennedy’s injuries.

 

Amongst many others, a few notable works stand out as also contributing to the misunderstanding of the accident and the role Ted Kennedy played in it. Zad Rust’s (1971) ‘Teddy bare’, Robert Sherill’s (1976) ‘The last Kennedy’, Malcolm Reybold’s (1975) ‘The inspector’s opinion’, Kenneth Kappel’s (1989) ‘Chappaquiddick revealed’ and Leo Damore’s (1988) ‘Senatorial privilege’ purported to reveal the truth of the matter - accusations against Kennedy included murder, manslaughter, drunk-driving and political cover-up. Kappel believed that photographs which revealed damage to the car ‘proved’ the accident had occurred earlier than stated and Mary Jo’s dead body was then returned to the car which was then driven over the side of the bridge.

 

Leo Damore’s (1988) ‘Senatorial privilege’ had the greatest impact in demonising Edward Kennedy’s character. Damore’s book represented Kennedy as a man with poor character and devoid of moral scruples. Fully engaged in a self-serving cover-up of the scandal, Damore alleged, Kennedy had asked his cousin Joe Gargan to say he had been driving the car or to report the accident as a solo affair with Mary Jo Kopechne driving herself off the bridge. Damore came to his conclusions after securing the first interview with Joe Gargan in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, Damore believed everything Gargan told him. Damore never considered that Gargan may have been trying to cover-up his own irresponsible actions that night. Damore dismissed the medical evidence in the case and the opinions of medical experts that the injuries that Kennedy sustained rendered him incapable of rational judgement. As Mary Jo’s mother stated: “No matter how you look at it, it was an accident. What hurts me deep is to think that my daughter had to be left there all night. This is why we had so bitter a feeling toward Markham and Gargan...I think Kennedy made his statement when he was still confused. In the state he was in, I do believe he couldn’t think clearly. I think he was taking all this bad advice, and it just continued for days.”10

 

According to Damore, Gargan said that he and Markham believed that Kennedy was going to report the accident but Kennedy believed they were going to report his suggested version -as a result of this miscommunication no report was made at all.

 

However, Gargan and Markham were the only rational persons on the scene and it is slightly disingenuous of Gargan to turn the story around and blame Kennedy. Kennedy was suffering from shock, exposure and a head injury - it is entirely understandable that he would blurt out confused, irrational and illogical thoughts as he sought to make sense of the crisis he was in. Accounts of countless road traffic accidents testify to the most bizarre behaviour of drivers or passengers who have suffered shock after a collision. And, of course, the lie which Damore suggests was concocted by Kennedy, Gargan and Markham, was never told. If Kennedy had been acting rationally he would have insisted that Markham and Gargan report the accident the following day and to ensure his name was not mentioned.

 

Damore also gives weight to the views of John Farrar, the diver who was called to extricate Mary Jo’s body from the crashed vehicle. Farrar maintained that it was likely an air pocket had allowed Mary Jo to survive for a number of hours after the accident and he based his statement on his knowledge of the tides, his experience as a scuba-diver and the position of Mary Jo’s body before it was retrieved from the car. This statement led Damore to conclude that Mary Jo had not drowned but instead suffocated. He accepted Farrar’s description that the buoyancy of Mary Jo’s body indicated she had not drowned. Farrar also commented on the small amount of water which had been expelled from Mary Jo. He never considered the possibility that water was expelled during the body’s extrication from the vehicle.

 

There is no credible scientific evidence to support the theory of suffocation - a theory which eventually became accepted by many writers and leading newspapers in the United States and abroad. However, authors James E. T. Lange and Katherine DeWitt Jnr. (1992) in their excellent study of the accident ‘Chappaquiddick, the real story’, proved by examining previous drowning cases, that the buoyancy of a body indicates nothing - some bodies float, others sink.11 Furthermore, Markham and Gargan did not observe any movement by Mary Jo when they attempted to rescue her. If she had still been alive it is reasonable to assume she would have assisted her rescuers in their attempts to get her out of the car. And three of the car’s windows had been forced in, making it unlikely that an air pocket would have been trapped, especially as the strong current would have filled the car quickly with water. It is also reasonable to assume that Mary Jo would have attempted to escape had she been alive rather than wait to be rescued. And if an air pocket had indeed been present, medical opinion has demonstrated that Mary Jo would have succumbed to hypothermia in the strong and cold Labrador currents. By the time it took for Kennedy to have travelled to the cottage and returned with help Mary Jo would have died.

 

Lange and DeWitt also disproved the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of events; a version which had relied on the mistiming of tides around Chappaquiddick. The magazine’s research led to the most preposterous theories most of them concerning the allegation that Kennedy had to have lied.

Whilst the truth about this accident has escaped most writers on the subject, a likely and logical account of the anomalies and inconsistencies in the story can be constructed. I acknowledge Lange and DeWitt’s contribution to an understanding of what exactly happened.

 

There is little doubt that Kennedy, although not ‘drunk’ in the real sense of the word, had certainly been intoxicated. He had drank a probable total of five or six rum and cokes. It is also true that someone of Edward Kennedy’s build could have metabolised alcohol quickly. And drinking and driving did not have the same stigma attached to it as it does today. Even though drink-driving laws were on the statute books in the 1960s police departments did not ‘prioritise’ the offence. In the United States a motor vehicle is virtually an extension of oneself.

 

Mary Jo’s alcohol level was 0.09%. For a woman of her stature and unfamiliarity with drinking, this would likely have meant she was ‘tipsy’ but not ‘fall down drunk’. People at the party believed Mary Jo was not ‘drunk’.

 

Edward Kennedy’s account, given to the inquest which was held six months after the accident, reveals in dramatic detail the behaviour of an injured, exhausted man who alternated between rational action and an irrational urge to wish the entire tragedy away and to believe that somehow Mary Jo would have suffered the same fate as himself - extricating herself from the car and returning to the cottage. On his journey to the ferry he kept saying to Gargan and Markham that he expected to see Mary Jo walking down the road. According to Gargan, Kennedy, on the way to the ferry, was rambling and verbalising irrational thoughts which were consistent with someone suffering from shock. Kennedy’s behaviour was not unusual for a person who had experienced a tragedy. Shock causes people to disassociate themselves, temporarily, from threatening circumstances. Kennedy was subconsciously seeking the protective company of those he knew. Walking and stumbling in the dark on his way back to the cottage, head down and feeling his way along the unlit road he by-passed nearby houses. According to Dr Max Sadove of the University of Illinois Medical School, an expert on the effects of shock: “No one knows what his own breaking point is. It is different at different times for different people.”12

 

Most writers maintain that Kennedy did not report the accident immediately because he was attempting to relieve himself of the onerous duty of taking responsibility and he was hoping his underlings would clear things up. Yet they fail to understand that Kennedy was in no position to take responsibility of any kind. In the periods when his actions reflected some kind of rational thought it is likely he was responding to his own political instincts - never take impulsive decisions, wait for advice and weigh the options. Kennedy put great faith in Burke Marshall, the Kennedy aide who had taken the role RFK played for Ted. Kennedy was unwilling to act without Burke’s wise counsel. As RFK had said: “ (Burke Marshall) had the best judgement of anyone I know.”

 

Instead it was David Burke, another Kennedy aide, who forced Kennedy to accept reality after they spoke over the phone on the morning of the accident. This almost obsessive activity in making numerous phone calls trying to contact Marshall led to accusations that Kennedy, in the hours before the accident was reported, was trying to escape blame. In his state of panic he knew he had to report the accident but he also was half conscious of the burden of the Kennedy legacy - his every action would be scrutinised and he may have felt that everything his brothers built would now end in shameful disgrace. How could he explain what had happened? If he had reported the accident when he arrived at the Shiretown Inn at 2 a.m., he feared that his parents would hear the news over the radio as they did after their other sons John and Robert had been killed. He also experienced jumbled thoughts of having to inform Mary Jo’s parents. Faced with these considerations he froze and, in the parlous mental state he was in, did nothing; his irrational mind was wishing the whole thing would just disappear or Mary Jo would suddenly appear to end the nightmare.

 

At the inquest Joe Gargan stated: “Senator Kennedy was very emotional, extremely upset, very upset and he was using this expression...’Can you believe it, Joe, can you believe it, I don’t believe it, I don’t believe this could happen. I just don’t believe it.’ Paul Markham told the inquest that Kennedy was “sobbing and almost of actually breaking down and crying. He said, ‘This couldn’t have happened, I don’t know how it happened...What am I going to do?’” Even Judge Boyle, who did not believe Kennedy’s account of the accident, stated: “impairment of judgement and confused behaviour are consistent with this type of behaviour.” 13 Kennedy had become emotionally and mentally ‘paralysed’ by his experience - he was in the throws of a mental breakdown caused by concussion, a bleeding injury to the brain and lesions acting together with the alcohol. His thoughts were further disturbed by memories of family tragedies.

 

There is no evidence to suggest that Kennedy really believed Mary Jo was still alive in the car. During the attempts to rescue her she made no sound, no thrashing movements in the water and no attempts to make bodily contact with her rescuers.

 

Many commentators on the accident overlook the medical reports about Kennedy’s injuries. They attempt to explain the inconsistencies and anomalies in testimony and evidence from the perspective of a rational mind attempting at all cost to save the Kennedy legacy and rescue a political career. But this was no simple case which was explicable in terms of a political cover-up or an attempt to extricate a politician from serious criminal acts. James Lange, who is an expert in drink-driving cases, has stated that Kennedy could not have been tried for serious offences like vehicular manslaughter or worse. There was simply insufficient evidence. Lange even ventures that the sworn testimony of two doctors could have been used to clear Kennedy of the offence he was eventually charged with - leaving the scene of an accident.14

 

A charge of ‘reckless driving’ would in particular have been difficult to prove - Chappaquiddick is a lonely and sparsely populated, one road island - and it would have been inappropriate to say that operating a motor vehicle at speeds of 30 or 35 miles an hour under these circumstances would have been ‘reckless’.

 

Kennedy’s lawyers were remiss in not challenging the Prosecution’s case for Kennedy leaving the scene of an accident. They believed a plea of mental impairment would have damaged his political career. Dr Robert Watt, trauma specialist at Cape Cod Medical Centre, examined Kennedy and reported that the Senator had suffered: “a half-inch abrasion and haematoma over the right mastoid, a contusion of the vertex, spasm of the posterior cervical musculature, tenderness of the lumber area, a big spongy swelling at the top of his head.”15

 

Dr Watt diagnosed concussion. Later Kennedy was examined by Dr Brougham at Cape Cod Hospital where he underwent X-ray examination which showed a straightening of the cervical vertebrae. Dr Brougham diagnosed acute muscular spasm, confirming cervical strain. Both doctors said that Kennedy’s mental confusion had a definite physiological reason.16

 

It is obvious from the medical reports that Kennedy had suffered from retrograde amnesia which always follows concussion. Kennedy had forgotten about the blow to his head and the period of time before his injuries. Post-traumatic amnesia would account for the numerous witnesses who testified to Kennedy’s depressed, confused and forgetful state of mind in the days and weeks following the accident. His father’s nurse, Rita Dallas, believed he should have been given psychiatric help.17 On the Monday before Mary Jo’s funeral Kennedy telephoned the Kopechnes again. Joseph Kopechne said: “I could see he was trying to tell us about the accident but I still couldn’t understand him. He was still sobbing, still so broken up he couldn’t talk.”18

 

Burke Marshall told author Burton Hersh (1972): “I advised him to have a medical examination. He truly did not know whether he might have had a medical problem. He was obviously disoriented, but he appeared coherent. Then, after I was with him for a while I came to the conclusion he had a blockage, that a lot of his mind wasn’t accepting yet what was happening to him. He told me he had been convinced, somehow, that Mary Jo Kopechne got out, got away. I don’t think he shook that idea off for a while. The Kennedys have a way of seeming fine, going forward without interruption under stress - I remember them all at the time of Bobby’s funeral - but inside a great deal is blocked off. That night, in that situation, I think Ted Kennedy might very well have functioned so that the people with him, particularly if they weren’t strong-minded people, would think that he knew exactly what he was doing.”19

Burke, like the rest of Kennedy’s advisors, was seriously worried that the young senator would have a nervous collapse at any time in the weeks following the accident. Their greatest fear was the Senator suffering an emotional breakdown, as Senator Edmund Muskie was to experience in 1972, thus ruining his chances for the presidency.

 

It was Lange and DeWitt who finally cleared up contradictions about Kennedy’s descriptions of the tidal currents and the anomalies in the timing of events by various witnesses. One of the most telling points they bring out is the fact that the current at 11.30 p.m. to midnight was not strong enough to turn the car and ‘slew’ it downstream. Because Kennedy’s timing of events were flawed he was put in the position of being called a liar because his description of the scene of the accident was not consistent with tidal conditions. However, it was not lies which brought this about but Kennedy’s mental condition and his failure to construct events that occurred before the accident. Lange and DeWitt proved that conditions described by Kennedy were consistent with the accident having occurred 1 to 1½ hours after the presumed time of the accident, just before midnight.20 It was true that Kennedy left the cottage with Mary Jo between 11.15 and 11.45 p.m. The other party guests have never given consistent or reliable times for the departure but they do agree it was before midnight. So the mystery remains - if Kennedy and Mary Jo left the cottage before midnight what were they doing in the hour to an hour and a half until the time of the accident?

 

Deputy Sheriff, Huck Look, was a very credible witness. He told Police Chief, Dominick ‘Jim’ Arena, who was supervising the extrication of Mary Jo’s body from the wreck, that he had seen a car with two or possibly three people in it the previous night when he returned from Edgartown. He said the car had a licence number beginning and ending with a seven. Kennedy’s car had the licence number L 78-207. Look saw the car at approximately 12.45 a.m. He was certain of the time period. Look remembered the two 7’s because he wore the number 77 on his basketball jersey at Edgartown High School. Look testified that when he approached the car it took off at high speed down Dyke Road. Look approached the car because he suspected the driver was lost and he wanted to assist.

 

Evidence that Kennedy returned to the cottage after 1 a.m. was provided by a next door neighbour who said his dogs barked about that time. They only barked at pedestrians. And Kennedy’s description of the currents was consistent with the accident happening at approximately 1 a.m..

Which brings us to the missing 1½ hours. Unfortunately, Kennedy showed over and over again that he could not remember and the medical evidence confirms he did indeed suffer amnesia. Until Kennedy’s memory returns the missing time will continue to engender speculation.

 

What follows is the author’s belief of what really happened. This is based on the record of events described earlier and obtained through an examination of the inquest report, an analysis of scientific and forensics evidence acquired by authors Lange and DeWitt and on logical assumptions about how the train of events occurred.

 

It should be remembered that when Kennedy told his friends that he was leaving the party to return to Edgartown, Mary Jo had indicated she wished to leave also. Kennedy did not ask her. She also complained of feeling unwell perhaps due to the effects of the alcohol and sun.

 

As a drinker Kennedy would have been able to hold his liquor much better than Mary Jo who had been estimated to have consumed five or six drinks of 80-90% proof. Although Esther Newburgh stated that Mary Jo did not appear to be drunk it has been the experience of many people that an intoxicated state develops quickly after encountering the night air on leaving a hot and stuffy environment. If Mary Jo had been feeling unwell due to the effects of the alcohol it is possible that Kennedy had been walking Mary Jo around the front yard; or they may have started the car journey, stopped the car to allow Mary Jo to be sick and then continued later; or perhaps Kennedy suggested they take a swim to neutralise the effects of the alcohol. Whatever the circumstances, innocent or otherwise, Kennedy’s injuries prevented him from recalling the lost time. It is also possible that Kennedy, some days or weeks later, remembered - but how could he explain to Mary Jo’s parents that her last waking hours were spent getting drunk and then sobering up?

If Mary Jo had been intoxicated this would account for her leaving her purse and motel room key at the Lawrence cottage. This is exactly what Rosemary Keough did when she went with Kennedy’s driver to collect a radio from Edgartown midway through the party. On her return she left her purse in the Oldsmobile.

 

If Kennedy and Mary Jo had left the cottage and then gone for a walk to sober up they would have had to return for the car. Lacking any sense of time and not realising the ferry would most likely have shut down for the night, they returned unobserved and started their journey in the Oldsmobile.

Kennedy drove along the main road eventually driving a matter of yards into Cemetary Road; distracted, he did not turn left following the bend in the road which would have taken him to the ferry landing. Realising his mistake he reversed the car and spotted Huck Look. An element of fear may have entered Kennedy’s mind. Kennedy may have panicked because he feared Officer Look was actually an assailant who had recognised him - after all his two brothers had been murdered. Or Kennedy may simply have been fearful he would be arrested for having drunk too much. He was in a car with a woman who was not his wife - how would it look? In any case it is clear that Kennedy did not remember the incident otherwise he would have made up an entirely innocent explanation and added it to his statement the following morning.

 

Whether fearful of an assailant or unwilling to explain his circumstances to an officer of the law, he turned right down Dyke Road to the bridge. At the bottom of the road a short distance from the bridge the car hit a ‘mound’ and steering became difficult. In attempting to correct his steering Kennedy hit the guard rails on the side of the bridge and the car flipped over landing upside down. The strong current slewed the car downstream. Kennedy was thrown from the car and managed to make his way to the bank. After coming partly to his senses he made repeated dives looking for Mary Jo until he became too exhausted to continue.

 

After stumbling back to the cottage, Kennedy asked his friends Gargan and Markham to accompany him back to the scene of the accident. Both Kennedy aides tried to rescue Mary Jo but failed - the current was too strong. It had even defeated Police Chief, Arena, the following morning when in full daylight he tried to remove Mary Jo’s body from the car. He sat on the car and waited for diver, John Farrar, after spending five minutes struggling against the current.

 

Kennedy became distraught; his behaviour during the next few hours strongly suggests a man who was confused, frightened and in shock. As he later confessed in his television broadcast, following his appearance in court, his thoughts were jumbled and made no sense. And this is entirely consistent with the injuries he suffered. When a person is hit on the head hard enough, the soft brain tissue collides with the hard inner surface of the skull creating a brain injury. Invariably, this disrupts electrical activity in the outer areas of the brain where memories are stored. And this disruption prevents memory from forming not only of the traumatic event itself but also of the several minutes before that event.

 

Gargan and Markham, the two friends who had the faculties to make a rational decision, failed to take action and report the accident. Instead they retired to the cottage after Kennedy jumped into the water at the ferry landing to swim to the Edgartown side.

 

Kennedy believed he did all he could have under the circumstances, given his medical condition. But he did place full blame upon himself. He never blamed Gargan and Markham who had been in a much better position both physically and mentally to handle matters. As Ted Kennedy’s mother Rose was to say: “I didn’t understand why Joey Gargan or Markham did not report the matter to the police even if Ted did not have any sense enough or control enough to do so - especially when the body of the girl was in the car... That is what seems so unforgivable and brutal to me...”.21

 

ennedy’s ex-wife Joan had always known that the tragedy at Chappaquiddick was a terrible accident. She told author Marcia Chellis, after her divorce: “From my own experience I know what it’s like to go through a personal ordeal (she is referring to her alcoholism) and how painful it is. I know how Ted has suffered and grown because of (the accident). Can I dare hope that from such a tragedy as Chappaquiddick there can actually come out of it some good? The good is the growth and the strengthening of a very human public person.”22

 

Each time Kennedy’s re-election as senator comes around he has to deal with the consequences of that tragic night in July 1969. Many years after the event he told ‘Time’ magazine that his behaviour that night did not reflect on his present day judgement: “People may not believe me or accept some of my answers. But the idea that the people who were there that night are holding back some secret is just all wrong. The essence of the event for me is that the girl is dead. There is nothing else for me to say.”23 He has always been unable to say anything more than he said at the time of the accident; understandably so given the medical facts of the case. The media continually bring up the case asking for answers to questions which can never be fully answered. And writers continually accuse Kennedy of having committed unpardonable sins. However, a telling story by Joe Kennedy’s nurse, Rita Dallas, may give insight into the stark and simple fact that Kennedy had been telling what he believed to be the truth all along. On Saturday 19th July 1969, after Kennedy returned to Hyannisport from Martha’s Vineyard, he told his father the news. Dallas reported that Kennedy said: “Dad, a girl was drowned. I stopped by at a party Joe was having for some of our girls from the office. One of them wanted to catch the ferry and get back to the motel on South Beach. I said I’d take her but I turned off the road and my car went off the bridge into the tidal pond. I got out, Dad, and I tried to save her but I couldn’t. I guess, after that, I went to pieces. I walked back to Joe’s and then we drove back to the bridge. He tried to get her out, too, but he couldn’t. I must have gone a little crazy, Dad, because I swam across to Edgartown. I left the scene of the accident, and things aren’t good because of that...But I want you to know that I’m telling the truth.”24

 

Edward’s father, Joe Kennedy, was confined to a wheelchair after having suffered a severe stroke in 1961. He did not have the power of speech. However, according to family members, he was mentally astute. It is inconceivable that Edward, who loved his father dearly, would lie to him in the knowledge that his father’s health was failing and could succumb to death at any time. And in a 1980 television broadcast Kennedy said: “Over 10 years ago I testified in court in detail under oath to God, to the truth about the accident at Chappaquiddick that caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. That sworn testimony has been published and reprinted many times since then. I know there are many who do not believe it but my testimony is the only truth I can tell because that is the way it happened.”25

 

Kennedy’s remorse was genuine and he doubtless suffered severe mental anguish. As he said to close friends on many occasions, in remembrance of his brothers’ deaths and the memories of that tragic night: “Not a day goes by...”.

 

Notes

1.   Hersh, B. (1997). The shadow President, Steerforth Press. p. 100.

2.   ‘Inside story - Chappaquddick’. Narrated by Ian Holm, produced by John Edginton. BBC Television, 1994. (Otmoor Productions for BBC Television in association with Arts and Entertainments Networks).

3.   Damore, L. (1988). Senatorial privilege - the Chappaquiddick cover-up, Dell Publishing. p. 78.

4.   Ibid, p. 78.

5.   Hersh, B. (1972). The education of Edward Kennedy, William Morrow and Co. p. 400.

6.   Gibson, B. and Latham, C. (1986). Life with Rose Kennedy, Warner Books. p. 40.

7.   ‘Grief, fear, doubt, panic - and guilt’, Newsweek, 4 August 1969, p. 20.

8.   Olsen, J. (1970). The bridge at Chappaquiddick, Ace Books. p. 241.

9.   ‘The Mysteries of Chappaquiddick’, Time, 1 August 1969, p. 13.

10. Damore, L. (1988). Senatorial privilege - the Chappaquiddick cover-up, Dell Publishing. p. 422.

11. Lange, J. E. T. and Dewitt, K. (1992). Chappaquiddick - the real story, St Martin’s Paperbacks. p. 88.

12. ‘The Mysteries of Chappaquiddick’, Time, 1 August 1969, p. 13.

13. Ziegler, H., ed. (1970). Inquest. Tower Books. (Abridgement of the 5 volumes of Chappaquiddick Inquest Testimony - Docket No. 1522); ‘A judge’s harsh verdict on Teddy Kennedy’, Newsweek, 11 May 1970, p. 35

14. Lange, J. E. T. and Dewitt, K. (1992). Chappaquiddick - the real story, St Martin’s Paperbacks. p. 141.

15. Ibid, p. 72.

16. Ibid, p. 72.

17. Ibid, p. 123.

18. Damore, L. (1988). Senatorial privilege - the Chappaquiddick cover-up, Dell Publishing. p. 142.

19. Hersh, B. (1972). The education of Edward Kennedy, William Morrow and Co. p. 409.

20. Lange, J. E. T. and Dewitt, K. (1992). Chappaquiddick - the real story, St Martin’s Paperbacks. p. 71.

21. Leamer, L. (1994). The Kennedy women, Villard Books. p. 652.

22. Chellis, M. (1985). The Joan Kennedy story, Sidgwick and Jackson. p. 87.

23. ‘A night that haunts him’, Time, 5 November 1979, p. 25.

24. David, L. (1993). Good Ted, bad Ted, Carol Publishing Group. p. 132.

  1. ‘Inside story - Chappaquddick’. Narrated by Ian Holm, produced by John Edginton. BBC Television, 1994. (Otmoor Productions for BBC Television in association with Arts and Entertainments Networks).

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