From plane crashes to assassinations, overdoses to terrible illness, the Kennedy family, America’s most famous political dynasty, has been struck by a whole host of devastating tragedies over the years. After a car crash in 1969, Ted Kennedy, who had by this point lost 4 of his siblings prematurely, wondered if “some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys”.
The sheer number of tragic illnesses and deaths involving the family has led many to deem them ‘cursed’ in some respect. The tragedies suffered by the Kennedys, combined with their glamour, ambition and power, has captured the imagination of people across the world for well over half a century.
We’ve rounded up a timeline of the most notable examples of the so-called Kennedy ‘curse’ below.
1941: Rosemary Kennedy lobotomised
Rosemary Kennedy, sister to John F. Kennedy and the eldest Kennedy daughter, was thought to have suffered from a lack of oxygen at birth. As she grew up, she failed to hit the same developmental milestones as other children her age. Her family sent her to schools for the ‘intellectually disabled’ and ensured she had extra time and attention spent on her.
As she reached her early 20s, Rosemary began to experience violent mood swings and fits, making her mental illness much harder to hide. Her father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., decided to subject Rosemary to an experimental new procedure, a lobotomy, choosing not to inform his family until after it was complete.
The lobotomy was botched, leaving Rosemary with the intellectual capabilities of a 2-year-old and taking away her ability to walk and talk. She spent the rest of her life cared for in private institutions, hidden away and discussed in the vaguest of terms as her family believed knowledge of her mental illness could prove damaging for their political ambitions.
1944: Joe Kennedy Jr. killed in action
The eldest Kennedy son, Joe Jr., was a high achiever: his father had aspirations for Joe Jr. to one day become President (the first Catholic US president), and he had already begun a political career when America entered into World War Two.
He enlisted in the US Naval Reserve in June 1941 and trained to be a naval aviator before being dispatched to Britain. After completing 25 combat missions, he volunteered for top-secret assignments known as Operation Aphrodite and Operation Anvil.
On one of these missions, in August 1944, an explosive carried in his plane detonated early, destroying Kennedy’s plane and killing him and his co-pilot instantly. The details surrounding his final mission and death were kept secret until the end of the war. Joe Jr. was just 29 years old when he died.
1948: Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy dies in a plane crash
Kathleen Kennedy, nicknamed ‘Kick’ for her spirited nature, had decided to visit her father in Paris in order to convince him of the suitability of her new beau, the newly divorced Lord Fitzwilliam.
Setting off in a private plane from Paris towards the Riviera, they were caught in a storm which subjected the plane to severe turbulence. When they emerged from the clouds, the plane was in a deep dive, moments away from impact. Despite attempting to pull up, the strain on the plane proved too much and it disintegrated. All 4 onboard were killed instantly. Kick’s father was the only member of the Kennedy family to attend her funeral.
1963: Newborn Patrick Kennedy dies
On 7 August 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy gave birth to a premature baby boy, who was quickly baptised and named Patrick. He lived 39 hours, succumbing to complications of hyaline membrane disease despite desperate attempts to save him.
The couple had already suffered one miscarriage and a stillbirth. Patrick’s death raised the profile in infantile respiratory diseases and syndromes into the public consciousness and encouraged more important research on the topic.
1963: John F. Kennedy assassinated
In one of the most famous presidential assassinations in history, on 22 November 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas, Texas. He was 46 years old and had been in office for 1,036 days, or just under 3 years.
Unsurprisingly, his death shocked the world. People across America were devastated, and there was a massive public outpouring of grief. His own family had their world turned upside down as they lost not only their president but their husband, father, uncle, son and brother.
John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was subsequently killed before he could be properly questioned or prosecuted, helping spark elaborate conspiracy theories about his motives. A dedicated investigation, the Warren Commission, found no evidence of conspiracy. Yet multiple polls conducted in the 21st century have consistently shown over 60% of the American public believe the assassination was part of a conspiracy and that its true nature has been hushed up by the government.
1968: Robert F. Kennedy assassinated
Another prominent member of the Democratic Party, Robert F. Kennedy (often known by his initials, RFK) served as US Attorney General between 1961 and 1964, and was subsequently a Senator for New York.
By 1968, RFK was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nominee, following in the footsteps of his brother John. Shortly after winning the California primary on 5 June 1968, RFK was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a young Palestinian who claimed to have acted in retaliation for RFK’s pro-Israeli stance during the 1967 Six Day War.
The assassination prompted a change in the mandate of the Secret Service, which subsequently allowed for the protection of presidential candidates.
1969: The Chappaquiddick Incident
Late one evening in July 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy left a party on Chappaquiddick Island to drop another party guest, Mary Jo Kopechne, back at the ferry landing. The car skidded off the bridge into the water: Kennedy escaped the car, swimming free and leaving the scene.
He only reported the crash to the police at 10am the next morning, by which point Kopechne’s body had already been recovered from the sunken car. Kennedy was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident, receiving a 2 month suspended jail sentence and having his driver’s license suspended for 16 months.
The Chappaquiddick Incident, as it became known, severely undermined Ted’s hopes of ever becoming President. When he eventually did run in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries, he lost to incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
1973: Ted Kennedy Jr.’s leg amputated
Son of Ted Kennedy and nephew of JFK, Ted Kennedy Jr. was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer in his right leg: this was swiftly and successfully amputated in November 1973, and the cancer did not reoccur.
1984: David Kennedy dies from an overdose
The fourth son of Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel Skakel, David nearly drowned as a boy but was saved by his father. The day after his own near-death experience, David watched his father’s assassination live on television.
Kennedy turned to recreational drug use to cope with the trauma he had experienced, and a car accident in 1973 left him addicted to opioids. Despite numerous trips to rehab following minor overdoses, David never kicked his addiction.
He was found dead in April 1984, having overdosed on a combination of cocaine and prescription medication.
1999: JFK Jr. dies in a plane crash
John Kennedy Jr. was born 2 weeks after his father, John F. Kennedy, was elected President. John Jr. lost his father just before his third birthday.
In 1999, while working as a successful legal professional in New York, John Jr. flew from New Jersey to Massachusetts via Martha’s Vineyard to attend a family wedding with his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law. The plane was reported missing shortly after it failed to arrive on schedule and stopped responding to communications.
Wreckage and debris was later found in the Atlantic Ocean, and their bodies were discovered several days later on the seabed. It’s thought Kennedy became disorientated during a descent over water at night, resulting in the crash.