Debunking the myths about Chappaquiddick…and Mary Jo

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Left: Senator Ted Kennedy, age 37, attends Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral. Note the neck brace inside his collar. Right: The scene of the accident at Chappaquiddick, showing the direction Kennedy’s car was travelling on Dyke Road just before it skidded off the bridge.

One of the not-so-guilty pleasures of being a true-crime buff (along with all the other persons I am) is that it compels me to take an interest in the actual particulars of a story, not just what the media circus has chosen to make of them.

I’ve seen the blogosphere, like the media, dissect this drunk-driving accident nine ways till Friday. Lots of passion, little coherence, and all too often, facts get beaten out of shape before being sacrificed on the pyre of ideology. End result: Huge disservice done not only to the memory of the late US Senator Ted Kennedy, but also to the memory of Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who drowned in Kennedy’s car that night. Can you stand to see one more wingnut masturbating over Mary Jo’s grave? No? Then how about self-styled feminists and progressives–usually too smart to do such things–falling into the selfsame ‘winger trap, slamming Ted Kennedy as just one more rich bastard who threw a not-so-rich young woman (metaphorically speaking) under the bus?

No, I don’t want to go there, either. So let’s go back to that unlucky night on purely factual grounds this time, with Mel Ayton’s excellent Crime Magazine piece, The Bridge at Chappaquiddick. I think it will go a long way toward debunking a lot of persistent myths, innuendos, rumors, and just plain lies.

MYTH: Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne were having an affair.

FACT: Not bloody likely. According to Ayton:

An RFK aide described Mary Jo as “an unworldly girl.” Others who knew her said she was a young woman 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 presidential election.

Mary Jo called herself a “novena Catholic.” Her friends described her as a young woman who was seriously committed to her faith. 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.

Furthermore, at the time of the incident, Mary Jo Kopechne had been unofficially 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 Sen. Ted Kennedy. There is no evidence that this allegation is true. The only person who can answer it is Ted Kennedy and he has stated on numerous occasions that nothing happened between them.

It is significant that, while other details of Kennedy’s recollection varied (we’ll see why in due course), that one in particular did not. He categorically denied it every time, and so did anyone else who knew the both of them. Nobody has ever been able to offer concrete proof of an affair, because there was none to be had. Doesn’t stop the wackaloons from speculating, though.

MYTH: Ted Kennedy murdered Mary Jo Kopechne to cover up an affair and/or pregnancy.

FACT: See above, and add “why the hell would he dirty his own hands (and risk his own life) to kill her if he was rich enough to pay a hitman?” The doctor who examined the body at the scene found no evidence of a pregnancy, either. There was no autopsy, which might have put the final kibosh to this rumor, but this was not Ted Kennedy’s doing; her own parents asked that there not be one. Ironically, they made this request because they had heard that the autopsy would be done only to determine whether Mary Jo was pregnant!

However, someone else in Ted’s life at the time was pregnant: his wife, Joan…


…who went with him to Mary Jo’s funeral, as we can see in the picture above. Sadly, she miscarried soon after–probably as a result of stress from the incessant media hullabaloo about the accident.

MYTH: Ted Kennedy didn’t care that Mary Jo was killed.

FACT: Since only he was privy to what was going through his own head that night, we have to rely on eyewitness accounts of his behavior in the aftermath of the accident. And all of them suggest that not only did Ted Kennedy care very much, he was badly broken up about it–to the point of hysteria. According to Ayton:

During their post-accident journey to the ferry, Kennedy kept saying to Gargan and Markham that he expected to see Mary Jo walking down the road. According to Gargan, Kennedy was rambling and verbalizing irrational thoughts – behavior that is consistent with individuals who are suffering from shock. Gargan said, “Sen. 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.” 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?'”


On the Monday before Mary Jo’s funeral, Kennedy telephoned the Kopechnes a second time. 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.”

The shock was physical as well as emotional; Kennedy sustained a concussion and neck injury when the car flipped onto its roof. After emerging from the vehicle (he could never remember how he had done it, a probable sign of amnesia), he momentarily reoriented himself and made several attempts to rescue Mary Jo, but was forced to give up. The current in the pond was just too strong, and he was injured and exhausted, as well as emotionally labile and confused. Only then did he begin to make his way back to the cottage to seek help.

But here’s the main thing: would a guy who didn’t give a shit attempt “seven or eight times”, in the Boston Globe’s words, to rescue Mary Jo, whom he did not even know all that well? And would he be upset and crying, as Kennedy was? Would he have attended her funeral, as Kennedy was photographed doing (see top of this entry)? Acc
ording to several accounts, Ted Kennedy even went so far as to approach Mary Jo’s parents, offering to pay for the funeral. They turned him down, preferring to do it with savings they’d set aside to pay for her wedding. The one thing he did that was even remotely suspect was not to call them with the news right away. Given that he was in a state of shock and confusion, as well as horror and remorse, it’s not surprising that it took him several hours to work up the nerve.

Oddly, though, her parents seem to have understood this, because they didn’t appear to harbor any rancor toward him:

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.”

Notice she said “Markham and Gargan”–Kennedy’s aides, not himself. She blames them for giving him bad advice, but not him for taking it, because he was in a confused state.

And if he really didn’t give a shit about Mary Jo, doesn’t anyone suppose her parents would have noticed–and been extremely bitter toward him? She was, after all, their only child.

MYTH: Ted Kennedy just walked away from the scene of the accident. He should have been charged with leaving the scene, at the very least.

FACT: See above; he did remain for as long as it took him to realize that he could not get Mary Jo out of the car. After that, he had to rest a moment; then he made his stumbling way back. He was so confused that he did not see the Dyke House along the road he had just driven down. Ayton again:

Kennedy’s lawyers were remiss in not challenging the prosecution’s charges that Kennedy was guilty of leaving the scene of an accident. They failed to make reference to Kennedy’s injuries and the inevitable mental confusion that usually follows because they believed a plea of mental impairment would have damaged Kennedy’s political career. James E.T. Lange even ventures that the sworn testimony of two doctors could have been used to clear Kennedy. He does, however, believe that Kennedy was guilty of the “wrongful death” of Mary Jo and “reckless driving.”

What injuries did Ted Kennedy suffer that might have impaired his mind?

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 lumbar area, a big spongy swelling at the top of his head.” Dr. Watt diagnosed concussion.

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 time before that event.

Later Kennedy was examined by Dr. Brougham at Cape Cod Hospital where he underwent X-ray examination that 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 basis.

The medical reports state that Kennedy had suffered from traumatic amnesia that includes retrograde amnesia and post-traumatic amnesia, both of which are nearly always present in head injuries. Retrograde amnesia covers the period before the trauma and the trauma itself. Post-traumatic amnesia is a period of confusion and memory loss following the trauma.

Kennedy’s head injuries, which caused his befuddlement, would account for his later testimony and confusion about the timing of events when he left the cottage. It would also account for the numerous witnesses who testified to his 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.

This would undoubtedly also explain why Kennedy had so much trouble keeping his story straight. Which leads us to…

MYTH: Ted Kennedy lied.

FACT: When you can’t remember in precise detail what happened because you’ve been thumped on the head and had your neck badly wrenched, not to mention that you’re in shock and confused, would it be fair to call you a liar? NO? Well, then, think of how Ted Kennedy must have felt, being hounded by the media on this point every time he was up for re-election. He recollected the night’s events to the best of his ability. Unfortunately, his ability was impaired by the head injury he received. Not receiving proper psychiatric care at that crucial moment can’t have helped much, either.

MYTH: Ted Kennedy tried to cover up Chappaquiddick.

FACT: Actually, if anyone was guilty of a cover-up, it was his aides, Markham and Gargan; Mary Jo’s own mother felt that they gave him bad advice. And so did Rose Kennedy, Ted’s mother, according to Ayton:

Kennedy became distraught; his behavior during the next few hours strongly suggests a man who was confused, frightened and in shock. As he later confessed in his television broadcast his thoughts were jumbled. And this is entirely consistent with the injuries he suffered. […]

But it was Gargan and Markham who had the faculties to make a rational decision in the early hours of the morning. Despite their positions as subordinates of the senator, they should have taken complete charge. Instead they retired to the cottage after Kennedy jumped into the water at the ferry landing. In any event, reporting the accident to the police would not have saved Mary Jo’s life. The time span was too short.

Kennedy believed he did everything in his power to save Mary Jo and, given his medical condition, he was probably correct. He placed full blame upon himself for his recklessness. And 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…”

Failing to report the incident immediately? Sounds like the sort of thing two solicitous subordinates would do to keep their already controversial boss out of trouble, and his name out of the papers. They did not do so at his request, however, and his self-blaming behavior suggests that far from wanting to cover anything up, Ted Kennedy was prepared to take full responsibility even when he was in no fit condition to do so. Perhaps this is why their effort to downplay the incident backfired so spectacularly. His physical and mental state at the time was not good, but his willingness to take responsibility suggests to me moral strength, rather than the moral weakness more typically ascribed to him. He knew he’d made a mistake, and was man enough to own up to it.

And again: Mary Jo’s parents can’t be left out of the equation. Their reluctance to speak ill of Ted Kennedy speaks volumes as to how they saw the situation. They steadfastl
y maintained that he had bad advice from Gargan, in particular. All the shrieking wingnuts who scream about “poor forgotten Mary Jo”, oddly, forget who her parents held to blame more than anything for the shambles–and it wasn’t Ted Kennedy.

Strangely, though, the media and the wingnuts all give the parents of the deceased woman the shortest shrift of all. Partisan? Yep. But they sure weren’t biased in favor of Ted Kennedy. Which leads me to my final myth of the night:

MYTH: The liberal media covered up for Ted Kennedy.

FACT: According to the March 1980 Reader’s Digest, here are the “liberal” media’s actual editorial positions on the issue of Chappaquiddick:

The Boston Globe: “The most famous traffic fatality of the century will almost certainly play a part in the selection of the next President of the United States. It should. Chappaquiddick was not just an auto accident. Many Americans suspect, not without reason, that Kennedy’s handling of its aftermath is another case of a politican stonewalling. And they wonder whether Kennedy would lie to the American people in a more public crisis.”

The Wall Street Journal: “…his ability to function as President depends no little on whether the nation feels he is a man it can trust to explain his actions fully and frankly. Without this trust, national leadership is ultimately impossible.”

The New York Times: “There ought to be no hesitation to rake over this puzzling affair. If Mr. Kennedy used his enormous influence to protect himself and his career by leading a cover-up of misconduct–and the known facts lead to that suspicion–there would hang over him not just a cloud of tragedy but also one of corruption, of the Watergate kind. And as we know from Watergate, there is no graver question for a President than whether he can be trusted to respect the law.”

And that’s how the “liberal” media saw it in the year that plaster saint, Ronald Reagan–accused rapist and known philanderer–won the White House. Yeah, they really covered up for Ted Kennedy just great, didn’t they? So much that they were leading the bayonet charge against him and his reputation. They even went so far as to accuse him of “Watergate corruption”!

Unfortunately, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes there’s no “there” there, and sometimes an accident…really is just an accident. Chappaquiddick was an accident–terrible, tragic, painful for all those involved–but it really was just an accident. There is nothing to be inferred from it. But the fact that it cost Ted Kennedy his larger political ambitions, and relegated him to becoming an undignified sideshow even in death, is without a doubt the real scandal of Chappaquiddick.

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10 Responses to Debunking the myths about Chappaquiddick…and Mary Jo

  1. Oemissions says:

    Good job!. Needed to have this cleared up!

  2. Thanks, I thought so too. When I saw the Ayton piece, I realized I’d hit the motherlode for a rational, plausible analysis of the incident. I am so fed up with all the shrieking about this, whomever it comes from.

  3. Lyn says:

    Did anyone ever ask why she would hitch a ride with a guy that was drunk?

  4. Well, her blood alcohol at the time she was pulled from the wreck was 0.09, so I think there’s your answer. They had both been drinking, and both were impaired.

  5. Polaris says:

    It is good to see accurate accounts of this tragedy. Finding reliable information can be very difficult.
    Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo may not have been legally drunk according to the law in 1969 in Massachusetts, when the standard has been reported to be 0.15%. Since then the laws have changed so that a lower alcohol level in many states of 0.08% means a person is legally drunk.
    In daylight with the best equipment available it took the experts more than an hour to recover the dead woman’s body, so if Ted Kennedy or others had managed to have rescuers on the scene immediately after the accident, and if Mary Jo was still alive, she may have died from hypothermia even if she had managed to remain alive in an air pocket and had not run out of air to breathe before she was brought to the surface.

  6. Yep. And according to Ayton, she might not even have been breathing in an air pocket anyway; she might have drowned or died rapidly of hypothermia (she was only 5’2″ and slender, so it would have happened quickly). She may have simply not inhaled much water, and then her corpse could have floated into the air pocket that formed when the wreck settled. What little water was in her throat or lungs could have been expelled as she was removed. Some drowning victims float, and others sink. Without the autopsy, unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly how she died. Her parents, in trying to protect their daughter’s good name, seem to have unwittingly abetted all the obscene speculation about her relationship to the senator that has arisen since–quite the opposite of their intentions, I’m sure.
    My own humble educated guess is that since the vehicle rolled off the bridge in the direction of the passenger side, she probably sustained worse head injuries than Sen. Kennedy; the car would have landed on her side first. He must have been momentarily stunned, but I suspect she was knocked altogether unconscious, because her side of the car sustained the greater impact. If so, that would explain why she was unable to save herself. It’s not likely that she would have waited in an air pocket to be rescued; she was an able swimmer. And it’s basic human instinct to struggle to save yourself if you sense you are in danger of drowning; even non-swimmers can kick and thrash. So the “damsel in distress” scenario that a lot of the speculators have been pushing was not only flagrantly sexist, but it flies in the face of what people do in such a situation. Nobody waits to be rescued when they’re in an upside-down car filling rapidly with water. They kick and thrash until they either free themselves, or drown.

  7. Jack says:

    Yeah, fine, long and anxious – nay, fairly OCD – in the your usual mode of mythbusting rightist nonsense.
    But, calling it a “drunk-driving accident,” such a contradiction in terms will take you off my blogroll. Beginning this de facto defense that way renders the rest unpersuasive. Intentional or not, he left MJK to die in that car. Probably not Michael Bryant, but by no means innocent.
    It really seems unlikely that “Chappaquiddick was an accident;” it was totally preventable, as all drunk-driving fatalities are.
    No, “the real scandal of Chappaquiddick” is that Mary Jo Kopechne died when she shouldn’t have.
    Sorry Sabina, I can’t even browse anymore let alone read.

  8. Well, if this is what it takes to get taken off a complete (and self-righteous) stranger’s blogroll, then let me tell you something, Jack: I don’t know you, and I don’t care. Take me off, it’s no skin off my nose. I don’t need your approval to validate my *considered* opinion.
    It seems to me that your mind was made up long ago, and just doesn’t want to be confused with the facts. Get past the first paragraph, and down to the third myth, and you might see that you jumped to a false conclusion. If seven or eight immediate rescue attempts constitute “leaving her to die”, then you need help with your reading comprehension.
    Plus, your snide little OCD diagnosis-from-a-distance stinks. I don’t have OCD, and you are not my doctor.
    Buh-bye, it was nice not knowing you.

  9. No no, you are right, as you always are, without question, in the face of anyone daring to challenge you here.
    I did not parse every paragraph, every sentence, every clause, lept to judgment about Kennedy’s rescue efforts and abilities.
    Yet, I should not have parsed your argument with any care at all, according to you: “Get past the first paragraph.”
    That’s the strong point I had to make. “Drunk-driving accident” is a contradiction in terms. Believing otherwise, with your implication that Kennedy was not culpable, and subsequently himself a victim, is ethically untenable.
    No, I have no way of knowing if you have OCD or not and I apologize to any of your readers who might have been offended by that ‘snide little diagnosis’. (I’m a Dr. just not the kind that can cure you of most of your pathologies.)
    But you? I reckon I don’t owe you an apology. Calling me self-righteous with all the rest, and in the context of your whole blogging MO, is just a bunch of pot-kettle.
    PS – can anyone direct me to any other left-leaning-with-O’Reilly-attitude blogs?

  10. Did I ask you for an apology (to my readers)? No.
    Did I ask you for civility? No.
    Did I ask you for reading comprehension–not “parsing”, just plain old first-grade reading comprehension? No.
    Did I ask you to come in here and make your case on the basis of verifiable facts, rather than “ethically tenable” opinions? No.
    And it’s a good thing I didn’t, because you’re clearly not disposed to do any of the above. You just come on here, never having stopped by to say hello or debate anything sooner, only to harangue me, whom you don’t know from Adam, on what you imagine to be the failings in my morals and ethics? What gives you the right? Some other complete stranger’s death? How ethically tenable of you.
    I still say you’re dead wrong, but I will grant you just this one thing: A person drinking and driving may not be an accident.
    But a person unintentionally crashing a car IS, and if you can’t see that, well–I can’t help you. Maybe I’m just dumb in your eyes, since I don’t have a doctorate in anything. Or maybe I lack the proper set of ethical beer goggles. I dunno.
    But if it helps you to understand where I’m coming from at all, I got my pelvis smashed to smithereens by a careless driver when I was 14. Comminuted fracture, at least four bone splinters. A hell of a mess, more pain than you’d ever believe, a lot of emotional trauma. I was left with a permanent deformity, and I elected never to become pregnant in part because of it. I still have health problems relating to it (physical, not mental–so sorry to disappoint you). It’s fair to say this guy messed up my whole life, and yet I recognized HIS wrong-doing as an accident with no difficulty. I don’t see him as a moral monster. I met the man, and he was nice–and shaken up, and painfully apologetic. I forgave him right there in the courtroom, even as the case went to trial. He may have made a mistake in trying to pass a stopping schoolbus, but I didn’t presume to judge him on moral grounds. I know he didn’t mean to hit me. At 16, I was able to do that much, and with an ease that surprised me; I went in that day fully prepared to hate him. I look at Ted Kennedy, and I see someone just like this poor guy, who made one mistake and was never the same since.
    The truly moral thing to do is forgive the mistake, not whip up a scandal over it (or lecture other people on their poor sense of what constitutes scandal). Mary Jo’s parents did not, and they were the only ones who had the right to. They forgave, or at least appeared to understand that he had not meant to harm their daughter. We could all learn from them. (Funny how you fell into the same trap I mentioned, too, Jack–you forgot all about them!)
    I don’t know if you are capable of understanding that, Jack, and I won’t ask you to try. I know, based on what I’ve seen from you so far, that I don’t have any right to expect it.
    But I will ask you one thing:
    In future, don’t presume to judge anyone until you know all the facts. I take great pains to learn all the facts myself (which you mistook for OCD), and I don’t think it’s too much to ask of others as well. (Especially–whoopdefuckingdoo!–professors.)
    Church is over. Go now, and sin no more.

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