When it comes to American dynasties, the Kennedy family truly reigns supreme. From their long-standing history in American politics to their questionable ties to accidents and murders, the Kennedys certainly have a reputation. But as storied as the Kennedy family’s past has been, it’s actually all a lot more complicated than you might assume.
There is a ton of tragedy surrounding the Kennedy family, but it didn’t start with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. No, the Kennedy family has been shrouded by tragedy for decades, and there is even speculation that they’re cursed. Honestly, with as much death as the family has suffered, a Kennedy curse doesn’t seem too off the mark. It truly seems like the hard times will never end for the infamous Kennedys. However, the family has been outspoken about their disregard for a so-called curse plaguing them. Edward Kennedy Jr. and his brother Patrick Kennedy told CNN that they didn’t believe in a curse. "The Kennedy family has had to endure these things in a very open way," Edward Jr. said. "But our family is just like … every other family in America in many ways." Still, there’s no denying the tragedy that surrounds all the Kennedys.
Rosemary Kennedy suffered a failed surgery
Perhaps the first known tragedy of the Kennedy family took place all the way back in 1941. Obviously, things were different then, and so when Rosemary Kennedy‘s family noticed that, having had "intellectual disabilities" her entire life, she "was becoming increasingly irritable and difficult" at 22, they decided to have her operated on via lobotomy, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The operation was meant to calm Rosemary and help her, but it was a failed attempt.
While Rosemary didn’t pass away immediately following the surgery, it did render her unable to care for herself, and she was resigned to live in a home where others could care for her. In fact, Rosemary lived at the St. Coletta’s School for Exceptional Children for the rest of her life, until she passed away in 2005, when she was 86 years old. While Rosemary didn’t die as young as many other members of the Kennedy family did, her life was completely changed for the worse when she underwent that experimental surgery.
The tragic deaths started with Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.
When it comes to the Kennedy family, there’s really no denying the fact that they’re all high achievers. And with Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. — the eldest son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy’s older brother — that was certainly the case. He graduated from Harvard University in 1938, and was well on his way to graduating from Harvard Law School before volunteering in the Navy in 1942, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
But unfortunately, entering into the Navy would be the thing that took Joseph’s life. During World War II, Joseph was a navy pilot, and in August 1944, he was killed during a "secret bombing mission" near the coast of Normandy, France when explosives in his aircraft reportedly went off prematurely, per History.com. When he died, he was only 29 years old, and as tragic as his death was, there’s no doubt he was a hero who left behind a huge legacy.
Kathleen Kennedy died so young
To say that Kathleen Kennedy’s life was eventful would be an understatement. The sister of John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family member with the cutest nickname, Kick, experienced quite a lot in her short life. According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Kathleen was a debutante, a Red Cross volunteer, and even a research assistant for the Times-Herald newspaper. Additionally, Kathleen even married William "Billy" Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington in May 1944, making her quite literally a lady — Lady Hartington, to be exact. So yes, she was quite an extraordinary woman.
Unfortunately, she experienced tragedy when her husband died in combat in September 1944, the same year they married, making her a widow at only 24 years old. But that’s not where the tragedy ends with Lady Harington. Sadly, she died on May 13, 1948, in a small plane crash in France, along with three others (via CNN). Just four years after her brother Joseph P. Kennedy, passed away, so did young Kick at 28 years old.
Patrick Kennedy’s death broke his parents’ hearts
When you think of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, you probably immediately think of tragedy and heartbreak. But what you might not know is that the couple experienced a different kind of heartbreak in 1963, when their infant son Patrick Bouvier Kennedy passed away (via CNN).
According to The New York Times, Patrick was born nearly six weeks prematurely and was immediately in danger of dying, as he struggled to breathe. Just 39 hours after Patrick was born, he passed away from hyaline membrane disease, or what many might know as respiratory distress syndrome. Sadly, this was not the only Kennedy baby to die way too young. Per The New York Times, at the time of Patrick’s birth, Jacqueline had already suffered one miscarriage and a stillbirth. Clearly, Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy had to deal with far more than their fair share of tragedy, but, as the world knows all too well, it wouldn’t end with baby Patrick’s death.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated
In one of the biggest moments in American history, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. And when Walter Cronkite delivered the news to the nation, the famed newscaster begin to tear up, as The Washington Post reported.
On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot while being driven through Dallas, Texas as part of his campaign for reelection and was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. His assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also shot and killed after being arrested, according to History.com. While conspiracies have reigned supreme since Kennedy’s assassination, investigative journalist Gerald Posner told Frontline that Oswald simply hated the United States. "He despised America," Posner said. "He despised capitalism. When he eventually had the opportunity to strike against Kennedy, it was that symbol of the system that he was going after."
Despite the political challenges the assassination would present, the tragedy that Jacqueline Kennedy had to deal with was still heartbreaking and was just one in a long line of family misfortune.
Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy was in a plane crash that killed others
As if the Kennedy family hadn’t struggled enough following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy, also known as Ted, was in a deadly plane crash but somehow managed to survive in 1964. According to ABC News, in June 1964, when Ted was 32 years old, he was in a small plane crash while campaigning for his Senate seat in Massachusetts. The crash killed two and landed Ted Kennedy in the hospital for five long months.
During those five long months, he focused on the kind of senator he wanted to be. "I tried to put my hours to good use," he said in a 1965 interview with Good Housekeeping (via ABC News). "I had a lot of time to think about what was important and what was not and about what I wanted to do with my life. I think I gained something from those six months that will be valuable the rest of my life." Clearly, Ted was spared in that plane crash, but once again, a Kennedy family member found themselves in the midst of death and destruction.
Robert F. Kennedy was another member of the Kennedy family to be assassinated
While the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is obviously well-known in United States history, many people might be surprised to learn that his brother Robert F. Kennedy — known as Bobby Kennedy — was also assassinated, just five years after the President, in 1968. Robert was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, after giving a victory speech for winning the California presidential primary, according to History.com.
Sirhan Sirhan was the man convicted of shooting Robert, and he was quickly tackled and then arrested for the crime, which he confessed to during his trial. To say that Robert Kennedy’s death was the most shocking thing to happen in 1968 would be a lie, though. Just two months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the nation was still grieving, as noted by CNN. So for Robert to then be killed, when the nation was so hopeful that his presidency could turn things around, wasn’t easy for many Americans.
Ted Kennedy was involved in a deadly car crash that claimed another life
Perhaps one of the most infamous tragedies surrounding the Kennedy family only goes by one name: Chappaquiddick. The island off of Martha’s Vineyard was where Ted Kennedy crashed his car in July 1969, the vehicle going over a bridge and landing upside down in a pond, according to History.com. The crash left one female passenger — Mary Jo Kopechne, one of Robert Kennedy’s campaign workers — dead, but that wasn’t where the scandal or tragedy ended.
Instead, the focus then shifted onto Ted’s behavior after the crash. Instead of immediately calling police or rescue workers to try and find Kopechne or her body, Ted, who claimed he dove into the water to look for Kopechne and sought additional help from his cousin and aide, ultimately returned to his hotel where he went to sleep, only to report the accident the next morning. Obviously, that didn’t sit well with people, and History.com even went so far as to claim it was the reason Ted would never become president. Because at the end of the day, even though Ted survived the crash, an innocent woman died, and Ted just wasn’t as quick to report the accident as many thought he should have been.
David Kennedy tragically met his end after struggling with his mental health
For a while after the Chappaquidick accident, the Kennedy family avoided tragedy and seemed to be doing well. But in 1984, David Kennedy, the son of Ethel and Robert Kennedy, died of a drug overdose in a hotel room in Palm Beach, Fla. According to CNN, David had reportedly seen his father’s assassination live on television as a child, and he would go on to struggle with addiction.
And as The New York Times reported, Mellaril, Demerol, and cocaine were all found in David’s system when an autopsy was performed. The Orlando Sentinel reported that several of David’s friends claimed he had been depressed and deeply sad about what had happened to his father. Per The Times, Peter Andrew Marchant and Linwood Dorr were arrested for "conspiracy to sell cocaine and with selling cocaine," in relation to the cocaine found in David’s system.
For most families, an overdose would be an impossible tragedy to recover from. But for the Kennedys, David’s overdose was just the next in a long line of heartbreak.
Michael Kennedy was on vacation when he died
With all their money and political power, it’s not unreasonable to say that the Kennedys are like American royalty. They live in gorgeous homes, go to prestigious schools, and take luxurious vacations. But for one Kennedy, a vacation would prove deadly. In January of 1998, Michael Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, was skiing at a Colorado resort when he had an accident playing football while on skiis, a Kennedy family favorite, according to The New York Times.
Though the family had long played the sport in the mountains, Michael had an accident, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault. ”He was close enough to a tree on the left side that he couldn’t avoid it,” an anonymous eyewitness told The Times. ”But it was not like he was skiing recklessly. Michael is the best skier, a tremendously gifted athlete who could ski downhill backwards and blindfolded.” Despite all that athletic ability, Michael still died at the age of 39, another Kennedy’s life cut way too short.
John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and his sister-in-law all died in a plane crash
Another horrible Kennedy family accident took place in 1999, when a plane crash claimed the lives of John F. Kennedy, Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and her sister, Lauren Bessette. On July 16, 1999, John — or John-John, as he was lovingly known — was piloting a single-engine plane just off the coast near Martha’s Vineyard when it began to rapidly plummet and eventually crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, per History.com. It wasn’t until July 21 that the remains of all of those on board were found, and it was declared that John simply had become confused flying in the dark when the plane crashed.
The plane crash went down in history as one of the most shocking accidents in the United States. And at 38 years old, John F. Kennedy Jr. was taken far too young, and he, who was named People’s "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1988, never got the chance to see where else life would take him.
Kara Kennedy died far too young at 51
As those familiar with the Kennedy curse know, members of the famous family have been taken from the world at too young an age. But then, in 2011, Kara Kennedy, the oldest daughter of Ted Kennedy, died from a heart attack at the age of 51, as reported by Politico. Kara’s brother, Patrick Kennedy, told publications at the time simply, "Her heart gave out." Patrick added, "She’s with dad."
Kara had previously undergone surgery for lung cancer in 2003, after receiving the jarring diagnosis the year before, and the procedure had been successful. Kara, who’d also had chemotherapy treatments, appeared to be healthy ever since. Her mother, Joan Kennedy, even said as much. "She was very healthy. That’s why this is such a shock," Joan told Politico. Kara’s passing was obviously difficult for the Kennedy family to work through, as it was so unexpected, and it had truly seemed like the so-called Kennedy family curse had been lifted before her death. Unfortunately, tragedy continued to occur in the famous family, and it didn’t end with Kara.
Saoirse Kennedy Hill passed away after a battle with depression
In 2019, Saoirse Kennedy Hill, one of Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughters, sadly passed away at the family’s Cape Cod home at the young age of 22, as reported by CNN. According to USA Today, a toxicology report confirmed that Saoirse had a combination of methadone, ethanol, and other prescription drugs in her system, which resulted in an accidental overdose.
Though Saoirse’s death was ruled an accident, an essay she wrote for her school’s newspaper in 2016 revealed the young student had long suffered from depression. "My depression took root in the beginning of my middle school years and will be with me for the rest of my life," she wrote, per USA Today. "Although I was mostly a happy child, I suffered bouts of deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest." Saoirse’s death was an especially bitter tragedy for the Kennedy family, who shared a statement after her passing that "she lit up [their] lives with her love, her peals of laughter and her generous spirit." Clearly, Saoirse’s life was meaningful, and her death caused a lot of grieving.
Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter Maeve and her son Gideon drowned in 2020
In 2020, the idea of a Kennedy family curse once again came to a head when Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and her son Gideon drowned in a terrible canoeing accident, as reported by USA Today. In April 2020, Gideon and Maeve took a canoe out on Chesapeake Bay, and, when the waters turned dangerous, they never returned.
As both Maeve and Gideon were so young, at 40 and 8 respectively, this accident was another hard pill to swallow for the Kennedy family. In a statement, Maeve’s mother, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, expressed her heartbreak. "My heart is crushed, yet we shall try to summon the grace of God and what strength we have to honor the hope, energy and passion that Maeve and Gideon set forth into the world," the statement read, according to The Washington Post. Whether or not you believe in the Kennedy curse, there’s no denying the fact that the powerful family has faced far more than their fair share of tragedies.