The Untold Truth Of The Kennedy Curse

Correction 6/23/23: A previous version of this article stated that Michael Kennedy died in 1998. He died in 1997, not 1998.

The Kennedy clan has been among America's premier political movers and shakers for generations. They have spawned senators, chairmen, ambassadors, attorneys general and even a president, to the point that since their rise to prominence it has been less common to see the political field without Kennedys than with them. However, the family's clout has not come without a price. Ever since the days of World War II, an oddly large number of Kennedys have died well before their time, often in very strange fashion. Over the years, this trend of prematurely passed Kennedys, which extends to the present, has gotten so bad that that some people are even talking about whether a mysterious Kennedy curse looms over the family.

Now, no one is necessarily saying curses are real. It's pretty unlikely that some Kennedy ancestor angered a coven of witches or something. Still, when you look at all the weird deaths in the family's history, it does take your imagination in some pretty peculiar directions. Let's look at the truth behind the "Kennedy curse."

Joseph Kennedy Jr. died on a top secret mission

Although John F. Kennedy is the most high-profile early death in his family, he might not have been so if it weren't for the fate of his older brother, Joseph P. "Joe" Kennedy Jr. As Irish Central tells us, Joe was the eldest child and the namesake of his father, and it was originally he who was the focal point of Joe Senior's political aspirations, long before anyone had even dreamed of a "Kennedy curse." Joe Jr.'s grandfather Joseph Fitzgerald even told the press that the child is "the future president of the nation."

The young man certainly seemed to be heading that way. He was a star athlete and a gifted student with a keen interest in politics, and even reportedly considered a run for Congress. However, his career took a dramatic left turn in 1941 when he chose not to wrap up his law studies at Harvard, instead enlisting to become a naval aviator. Soon he was flying patrol planes in the Caribbean. He later piloted bombers for the British Naval Command, completing 25 missions with characteristic gusto and deciding to go for even more. In 1944, he joined Mission Aphrodite, a top secret program where his payload was an early, radio-controlled drone plane loaded with explosives. The idea was to release the drone in the air and help its controllers crash it into its target, a rocket launching site. Unfortunately, the project went awry, and two mysterious explosions destroyed the drone and killed him and another pilot.

Kathleen Kennedy's short, rebellious life

As the JFK Library tells us, John F. Kennedy's sister Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy was born in 1920 and got a lot done in the 28 years before her untimely death. Apart from maintaining the lavish social presence practically required for a Kennedy, she volunteered for the Red Cross, worked for a newspaper in Washington D.C, and arranged a number of charity events. In 1944, she married a British nobleman named William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, and became Lady Kathleen Hartington. According to Irish Central, Kennedy's mother was unimpressed because Cavendish was a Protestant.

Unfortunately, peaceful family life was not in the cards. Kennedy's husband was in the military, so he was called up a mere four weeks after the wedding and died in service a few months after that. Apart from a quick visit to see her Stateside family, the widowed Lady Hartington chose to remain in England, and even found new, scandalous love in Peter Fitzwilliam, another Protestant and an extremely married man. One divorce and assorted threats of disownment later, and they were married. In 1948 the newlywed couple boarded a plane to visit Kennedy's father in France. The trip ended in disaster when a storm caused the plane to crash, killing everyone aboard. Due to Kick's scandalous reputation, her father Joe was the only member of the Kennedy clan to attend the funeral, and the family did its best to hush up the events to protect JFK's career.

Patrick Kennedy died as a baby, just before JFK's death

Aside from JFK's own death, arguably the greatest tragedy in the lives of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy came on August 9, 1963. As the Washington Post reports, that was the day the presidential couple lost their third child, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who died less than two days after he was born. Patrick came in the world five and a half weeks early and was drastically underweight. What's more, he was suffering from a lung condition called hyaline membrane disease, which now has a survival rate of roughly 95% but back then was a terrible threat to prematurely born babies. Recognizing the situation for what it was, President Kennedy immediately ordered a Secret Service agent to fetch a chaplain to baptize the child, but that was about all that could be done. Despite world-class care, all the Kennedys could do was wait and hope.

The rest of America stood vigil with them. The country was holding its breath for news of the boy's situation, and many gathered in front of the hospital to show support. All of this was to no avail, and Patrick passed away after just 39 hours. Still, the cloud of the tragedy had an unforeseen silver lining, as the traumatic event helped bring JFK and Jackie back together somewhat. (Their relationship had been fairly icy thanks to JFK's indifference and womanizing.) Unfortunately, they would travel to Dallas just a few months later.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy

Despite the many other disturbing deaths on this list, it's hard to see the concept of the "Kennedy curse" being as famous as it is today without the most high-profile case on the family's thick docket of tragedies: the assassination of the 35th president of the United States.

As Britannica tells us, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot on November 22, 1963, while riding in an open-air motorcade in Dallas with the first lady seated next to him. The accused shooter was former U.S. Marine and Marxist enthusiast Lee Harvey Oswald, who in turn was shot by a nightclub bigwig called Jack Ruby before he could be taken to court. However, the cloud of confusing details around the case have turned the murder into a hotbox of unanswered questions and conspiracy theories that run rampant even today. Some believe the murder happened at the behest of popular national boogeymen of the time, like Cuba or the USSR, partly because of connections Oswald had with those nations. The president also led a life full of secrets — his womanizing and significant medical troubles come to mind — and as those secrets have slowly come out since JFK's death, they've only served to fan the flames.

Robert Kennedy is the second most famous assassination victim in the family

After his older brother John F. Kennedy, Robert Francis Kennedy would probably have become the next most successful politician in his family. According to the JFK Library, it was common to see him operate in his brother's political shadow: He got his start in the game by acting as JFK's campaign manager during his 1952 Senate run, and after stints on various Senate subcommittees he returned as his brother's campaign manager for the 1960 presidential campaign. After his victory, JFK appointed Robert as his attorney general, and in this role and later as a senator he campaigned tirelessly for civil rights. After after his presidential brother's assassination, he continued this battle as one of the U.S. senators from New York.

It seemed that Kennedy's star was on a similar trajectory as his late brother's, and on March 16, 1968, he announced his presidential candidacy. However, he never made it to the White House: As Britannica tells us, on June 5 of the same year, a man called Sirhan Sirhan shot the 42-year-old senator in a hallway of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, soon after Kennedy had won California's Democratic primary. While his assassination is not quite as prone to comspiracy theories as his brother's, it has been known to raise a few eyebrows as well. According to, in 2018 Kennedy's own son Robert Jr. revealed that he doesn't believe Sirhan was acting alone.

The 'Kennedy curse' begins

The concept of the Kennedy curse didn't just jump into existence one day. Though the media has been happy to play up the story, the original idea actually came from the family itself, as according to the New York Post, the "curse" was conceived by Senator Ted Kennedy in 1969. This was a year after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy which, of course, marked the second high-profile assassination in the family.

As CNN tells us, Ted Kennedy's musings on an "awful curse" possibly unleashed upon the family may have been more than a little hyperbolic, but on the other hand quite understandable, seeing as the family already had enough of a mysterious death toll. Ted himself wasn't exempt from involvement in fatal tragedies. While he did live to the age of 77, History tells us that in the same year he mentioned the "Kennedy curse" he was also involved in the Chappaquiddick incident, where he drove a car off a bridge and into the pond below and then returned to his hotel room without reporting the incident until the next morning despite the fact that the young woman who had been riding with him was still in the car. She didn't survive, and despite his insistence that he had been sober and tried his best to rescue her, the events were murky enough to destroy his presidential dreams.

The tragic deaths only continued.

David Kennedy had a fatal overdose

The deck was stacked against David Kennedy from a young age. People tells us he was only 12 years old in 1968 when he almost drowned in the sea off Malibu and was rescued in the nick of time by his father, Robert F. Kennedy. Mere hours later, young David witnessed the assassination of his father on television. He had already been a difficult child, and he became even more so after this. He indulged in vandalism and got in trouble for "speeding, reckless driving, using unregistered cars and driving without a license."

In 1973, his carefree attitude behind the wheel caused an accident that paralyzed one person and left Kennedy himself with a nasty back sprain. Kennedy turned to narcotics to deal with the pain, and it seems he never really stopped using them after that. His struggles exploded in 1979, when the 24-year-old was discovered battered and bruised in a low-rent motel in Harlem with 25 packets of heroin nearby. Although he initially tried to play things off as a random robbery, more and more details leaked out until he eventually confessed to the police that he was a "stoned-out junkie." Although the Kennedy family and friends immediately and publicly offered their support to their prodigal son, he never really recovered from his habits. As the New York Times reports, David Kennedy was only 28 when he was found dead from an overdose in a Palm Beach hotel.

Michael Kennedy's ski accident

Michael Kennedy was something of a black sheep of the family. As Los Angeles Times reports, he was marred with a number of high-profile scandals ranging from substance abuse to alleged affairs with young babysitters, and although he had expressed regrets for his "serious mistakes" and intentions to make up for them, he never really got the chance to. In 1997, the 39-year-old Kennedy suffered a fatal accident while on a family ski trip at Colorado's Aspen Mountain. He was skiing with a number of family members when he unexpectedly crashed into a tree. Though it only took four minutes for the first ski patrol to reach the site of the accident, nothing could be done. He was declared dead later that day.

Deseret News writes that the Kennedy family was quite fond of "ski football", a dangerous game where players toss a football or similar object to each other while skiing down the slope. They had been warned against it, but the game still reportedly caused Michael's death. As a very competent skier, he was able to play the game at much faster speeds than your average person, which led to tragedy when he had caught a snow-filled bottle the players used as a makeshift football, lost control of one ski, and flew headfirst into a tree.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and his family died in a plane crash

Like his presidential father, John F. Kennedy Jr. was a charismatic man whose life was cut short by tragedy. As the Boston Globe reports, Kennedy was only 38 years old on July 16, 1999, when the single-engine Piper Saratoga he was piloting unexpectedly plummeted and disappeared from radar near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Kennedy, his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette all perished in the accident. Their bodies were found five days later, "still strapped in their seats."

The trip was supposed to be a routine one — first, they planned to drop Lauren off at the Martha's Vineyard airport, and then they would have continued to Hyannis Port for the wedding of John Jr.'s cousin. However, a number of unwise decisions on Kennedy's part contributed to the disaster. As the Guardian notes, he was not a very experienced pilot and did not hold a full pilot's license. He had also been chastised for being overly confident in the air. To top things off, he was flying a fairly difficult-to-operate plane in tough weather conditions, with no flight plan and without a flight instructor in case things went awry ... which they did, to a devastating effect.

Kara Kennedy's last workout

In 2011, Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy's oldest daughter, Kara Kennedy, passed away aged 51. The New York Times reports that she went as unexpectedly as so many other Kennedys before her, as she had just finished her workout at a gym in Washington D.C. when she suffered a fatal heart attack.

Kennedy didn't enjoy the limelight quite as much as many of the other members of his family did, preferring instead to work behind the scenes as a producer and filmmaker. This means she didn't publicize her personal struggles, which we learned from her father's 2009 autobiography. According to Ted Kennedy, Kara was diagnosed with a supposedly inoperable lung cancer in 2002, but the family stubbornly looked for surgeons who would treat her, and the cancer eventually went into remission. Still, it may have played a part in her untimely death. As ABC notes, the "aggressive" cancer treatment involved removing part of her right lung, along with radiation and chemotherapy. It is possible that this weakened her heart muscle to the point that it simply gave out.

The tragic death of Mary Richardson Kennedy

The death of Mary Richardson Kennedy was as unexpected and tragic as they come. As USA Today tells us, she was a successful designer who entered the Kennedy clan when she married Robert F. Kennedy Jr. By all outward accounts, her life was a happy one: She had four children, worked on nonprofits and political campaigns, and was known as an extremely positive and pleasant person to her friends. However, things were not quite as calm under the surface. In 2012, the 52-year-old Richardson Kennedy's seemingly peaceful existence imploded in a dramatic fashion. Her life became a blur of chaos that included domestic disturbances and a drunk driving charge. Her husband of 16 years was getting a divorce. And finally, a friend found her dead. She had killed herself in the garage of her house.

After Richardson Kennedy's death, details of her inner turmoil started to surface. Friends and family revealed that she had suffered from depression and other mental health issues. That and the intense pressure and expectations that come with being a Kennedy all may have contributed to her death.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Saoirse Kennedy Hill was also a victim of the 'Kennedy curse'

Most of the Kennedys struck by the "Kennedy curse" have at least had time to make a life for themselves. Not so in the case of the most recent in their long string of family tragedies: On August 1, 2019, Saoirse Kennedy Hill became the latest Kennedy to perish before her time, as she was found dead of a suspected overdose at the Kennedy family's compound in Massachusetts. She was only 22.

Kennedy Hill was the granddaughter of the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, and while her acquaintances at Boston College say she seemed quite happy, they were also aware that she faced challenges. She reportedly suffered from depression, and in 2016 she wrote an essay for her high school newspaper detailing her struggles and even revealing a previous suicide attempt in an effort to make people more open about mental health issues. As CNN reports, her father Patrick Kennedy applauded her courage for "breaking the silence" about the issue and encouraged everyone to read her Deerfield Scroll essay on the subject of mental illness.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and her son disappeared in Chesapeake Bay

When Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, he left behind 11 children, one of whom was Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003

Kennedy Townsend's daughter, Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, the executive director of the Georgetown University Global Health Initiative, traveled with her husband and three children to her mother's home off Chesapeake Bay in Shady Side, Maryland, in the spring of 2020 as a respite and refuge from the coronavirus pandemic. According to Vanity Fair, during a game of kickball in the late afternoon on April 2, the ball went into the water, and Townsend McKean and her oldest son, Gideon, got into a canoe to go retrieve it. They neglected to wear life jackets, and the canoe disappeared. It was found later that day, without anyone in it, a few miles from the house. 

A 3,600 square mile search by the Coast Guard proved unsuccessful, and so the Kennedy family called off the search. Expecting and admitting the worst, the goal of the hunt moved from rescue to the recovery of remains. "It is clear that Maeve and Gideon have passed away," Townsend McKean's husband (and father of Gideon) wrote on Facebook. On April 6, a search and rescue team discovered the body of Townsend McKean. According to the Maryland Natural Resources Police (via CNN), the remains were found in about 25 feet of water slightly more than two miles away from where Townsend McKean and her son disappeared.