Mary Jo Kopechne’s House in Georgetown
On this day in 1969, a combination of alcohol, excessive speed, the late-night machinations of a married man partying with an unmarried young woman while his pregnant wife was at home confined to bed per doctor’s orders, together with a series of inexplicable choices by the driver of the car in which they were travelling both before and after it veered off the road and plunged into the water of a tidal channel, all came together to result in the death of the young woman. The married man driving the car was U.S. Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, and the young female passenger in his car was named Mary Jo Kopechne. On this bike ride I rode to the house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Northwest D.C. where Mary Jo lived at the time of her death. It is located at 2912 Olive Street (MAP).
On July 18, 1969, Kennedy and five other men, all but one of whom was married, met six young single women for a party in a private cottage on Chappaquiddick, a small island off the coast of the larger island of Martha’s Vineyard. Sometime late at night after an evening of drinking, Kennedy requested the keys to his mother’s car from his private chauffeur, John Crimmins. He then drove away from the party with Mary Jo, although she told no one that she was leaving with Kennedy, and she left her purse and hotel key at the party. Kennedy later said that Mary Jo had asked him for a ride back to her hotel.
Kennedy later testified that he was taking Mary Jo to a ferry that ran to Edgartown back on the mainland, but they weren’t headed toward the ferry landing when his car careened off Dike Bridge and into the inlet known as Poucha Pond. Instead the direction of their car indicates that they were heading toward the beach. A subsequent judicial inquest determined that Kennedy did not, in fact, intend to drive to the ferry slip, and that the turn onto Dike Road had been intentional. Kennedy made it out of the car alive. Mary Jo did not.
Kennedy claimed he jumped back in the water and dived down several times to try and rescue her, before ultimately giving up. He then walked back to the cottage where his friends were staying. To do so, he passed at least four houses with working telephones, including one with a porch light on that was only 150 yards from the scene of the accident. He also walked past a firehouse with a pay phone. When he got back to the cottage, none of the women were told what happened. According to the report of the judicial inquest, this was just the first of a series of decisions Kennedy made that night that were not only appalling but stretched credulity.
Kennedy and two of the men, a cousin named Joseph Gargan and a friend named Paul Markham, say they returned to the bridge to try to rescue Mary Jo. Unable to, the men claimed that they then drove Kennedy to the Chappaquiddick ferry landing, where he told them not to tell the other women for fear that they might put themselves at risk by trying to rescue Mary Jo, and assured them that he would report the incident to authorities. Then, the men said, Kennedy dove into the water and swam across the sound to Edgartown by himself.
Upon reaching Edgartown, Kennedy went to his room at a local hotel and went to sleep. Kennedy complained at 2:55 a.m. to the hotel owner that he had been awoken by a noisy party. By 7:30 a.m. the next morning he was in the hotel lobby casually making small talk about sailing with a local yachter and agreed to have breakfast with the man, with no indication that anything was amiss. When Gargan and Markham then showed up, they asked him who he’d called about the accident only to receive an astounding reply. Kennedy told them that he had told no one. The three men subsequently crossed back to Chappaquiddick Island on the ferry, where Kennedy made a series of telephone calls from a pay telephone near the crossing. The telephone calls were to his friends for advice, but he still did not report the accident to authorities.
Earlier that morning, two amateur fishermen had seen the upside-down, submerged car in the water and notified the inhabitants of the cottage nearest to the scene, who called the authorities at approximately 8:20a.m. Edgartown Police Chief James Arena arrived at the scene approximately 10 to 15 minutes later. After attempting unsuccessfully to examine the interior of the submerged vehicle, Arena summoned a professional diver, along with a tow truck with winch capability. The diver, John Farrar, arrived already in scuba gear at 8:45a.m., and discovered Mary Jo’s body, which was extricated from the vehicle within ten minutes. Police checked the car’s license plate and saw that it was registered to Kennedy. When Kennedy, still at the payphone by the ferry crossing, heard that the body had been discovered, he crossed back to Edgartown and went to the police station.
At 10:00a.m. Kennedy entered the police station in Edgartown, made a couple more telephone calls, and then dictated a statement to his friend Markham, which was then given to the police. Police Chief Arena never even asked Kennedy why he waited ten hours to report what had happened.
Farrar, the diver who recovered Mary Jo’s body and was also the captain of the Edgartown Fire Rescue Unit, asserted that Mary Jo did not die from the initial vehicle overturn or from drowning, but rather from suffocation. He further testified during the judicial inquest that she “lived for at least two hours down there” and would likely have survived if a timely attempt at rescue had been conducted. Despite Farrar’ testimony, the medical examiner, Dr. Donald Mills, declared that the cause of death was accidental drowning. He signed a death certificate to that effect and released Mary Jo’s body to her family without ordering an autopsy. She was then buried just one day after dying. Attempts by the District Attorney to exhume the body to conduct a belated autopsy were denied by the courts.
Mary Jo’s parents said that they learned of their only child’s death from Kennedy himself, before he had even informed authorities of his involvement. However, her parents did not learn that Kennedy had been the driver of the car until they read it in press releases some time later.
A local grand jury later assembled in special session to consider what, if any, charges should be brought against Kennedy in regard to Mary Jo’s death. However, based on a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court order issued at the request of Kennedy’s lawyers, the previously-conducted judicial inquest was performed in secret , and the 763-page transcript of the inquest would not be released until after the grand jury process had been completed. Therefore, Judge Wilfred Paquet instructed the grand jury members that it could not see the report from the inquest, or consider any information or evidence from those proceedings. They were told that they could consider only those matters brought to their attention by the superior court, the district attorney or their own personal knowledge. District Attorney Edmund Dinis, who had attended the inquest and seen Judge James Boyle’s report, then told the grand jury that there was not enough evidence to indict Kennedy on potential charges of manslaughter, perjury or driving to endanger. The grand jury subsequently called four witnesses who had not testified at the inquest, who testified for a total of 20 minutes. No indictments were issued.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts later allowed Kennedy to plead guilty to a single charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury, and sentenced him to two months’ incarceration, the statutory minimum for the offense, that was then suspended. Citing Kennedy’s excessive speed on the bridge, his driver’s license was also suspended for six months. And that was it. He went on with his life, and a 47-year long career as one of the most unabashedly liberal members of the U.S. Senate.
As a Senator, Kennedy later protested President Gerald Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon, thundering, “Is there one system of justice for the average citizen and another system for the high and mighty?” Ironically, these words were uttered just five years after the incident at Chappaquiddick.
I imagine that most people who pass by this typical Georgetown house are unaware of its former inhabitant, or any details of the story of the fate that befell her. But there are stories and history all around us if we just look for them.