The Kennedy Curse Explored: Why Have There Been So Many Tragedies In This One American Family?

by Stephanie Kaloi

America doesn’t have royalty by design, but we do have at least one family that has always been a little gilded: the Kennedys.

The family of John F. Kennedy has experienced both the highest highs and the most tragic lows in their time, and several people often refer to an idea that has a lot of traction. Called the “Kennedy Curse,” the theory posits that the family has a curse on the children and families of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the father of JFK.

While it might be tempting to dismiss the idea, it’s also hard to argue against it. This one family has experienced more tragedy than any group of people should.

From the deaths of John and his brother Robert F. Kennedy to the recent losses of Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and her young son Gideon, the Kennedy family has had to weather an awful lot.

Here’s a look back on the origins of the Kennedy Curse and how the idea came to be in the first place.

The Kennedy family has seen success in America that is almost unparalleled. The family has enjoyed businesses that have thrived and truly historic political careers. But alongside all of that has been a truly tragic truth: The family has endured severe and horrific losses. Dubbed the “Kennedy Curse,” the general idea is that there is some larger reason why the family loses so many of its members in tragic ways.

In 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy acknowledged the existence of a “curse” on the family. He noted that tragedy seemed to follow them around. In total, 12 deaths of members of the family have been identified as being associated with the Kennedy Curse:

  • August 12, 1944: Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. dies.
  • May 13, 1948: Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy dies.
  • August 9, 1963: Patrick Bouvier Kennedy dies.
  • November 22, 1963: US President John F. Kennedy dies.
  • June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy is shot and dies the next day.
  • April 25, 1984: David A. Kennedy dies.
  • December 31, 1997: Michael LeMoyne Kennedy dies.
  • July 16, 1999: John F. Kennedy Jr. dies alongside his wife and sister-in-law.
  • September 16, 2011: Kara Kennedy dies.
  • May 16, 2012: Mary Richardson Kennedy dies.
  • August 1, 2019: Saoirse Roisin Kennedy Hill dies.
  • April 2, 2020: Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and her son Gideon die.

In addition to these deaths, there have been several instances and accidents that are associated with the curse as well. Some have been deaths of extended family members not directly related to Joseph P. Kennedy, and others have included car accidents that have involved members of the family.

For example, in July 1969, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, and the passenger in his car drowned. In his statement that came a week later, he mused about “whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys.”

August 12, 1944: Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.

Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was the oldest child of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and his wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was serving in the military when the BQ-8 aircraft he was piloting accidentally exploded in England.

His father had high hopes that this son would be the one to become president of the United States. And indeed, Joseph Jr. had planned to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives once he was finished with his military service.

His brother, John F. Kennedy, was the next in line, so to speak, and ran for his own seat in the House before moving on to the US Senate, and then later the presidency.

May 13, 1948: Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy

In May 1948, Kathleen Kennedy died in a plane crash. Kathleen was the sister of John F. Kennedy. Her first husband, Lord Hartington, was killed only a few weeks after her brother, Joseph Jr. Kathleen eventually started on a new relationship with Lord Fitzwilliam, but her mother didn’t approve of the match and threatened to cut Kathleen out of the family financially if she pursued the relationship.

Sadly, Kathleen was on vacation with Lord Fitzwilliam when her plane crashed.

August 9, 1963: Patrick Bouvier Kennedy

In the intervening years, it seems the family had a bit of a break from tragedy. John F. Kennedy got married and became president of the United States, thus realizing his father’s goals for him.

Sadly, tragedy loomed over the family again when John and Jackie’s son, Patrick, was born prematurely. The baby boy suffered from infant respiratory distress syndrome for two days after his birth until he died.

Jackie had previously had a miscarriage in 1955 and then delivered a stillborn daughter named Arabella in 1956. Patrick was born while his father was on Air Force One and was 5½ weeks premature. A team led by Dr. James E. Drorbaught tried to save the baby but were unable to do so.

November 22, 1963: US President John F. Kennedy

Mere months later, the loss of Patrick was eclipsed by the nation’s loss of the president: John F. Kennedy was assassinated while in Dallas, Texas. The killing of the president stunned the nation, and the circumstances surrounding both the shooter and the shooting are forever carved in the history books.

President Kennedy was riding in an open-air motorcade next to his wife when he was shot in the head by Lee Harvey Oswald. At the time, it was believed that Oswald was the only assassin, but the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations later decided that he may have acted as part of a larger conspiracy.

The nation was plunged into a unified state of mourning, and at least eight investigations have been conducted since JFK’s death.

June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy

Five years later, Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of John, was in the middle of celebrating a victory in his own presidential bid when he was also shot. Robert was celebrating his wins in both the California Democratic primary and the South Dakota primary the night he was shot. He died the next day, on June 6, 1968.

Robert Kennedy was assassinated by 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan.

April 25, 1984: David A. Kennedy

After Robert was killed, the family again experienced nearly two decades without a major loss. This is also a remarkable pattern in the “curse.” It’s interesting how it really is generational.

But then in April 1984, David Kennedy died of a drug overdose. David was the son of Robert Kennedy and his wife, Ethel Skakel Kennedy. David had just completed a month of rehab at St. Mary’s Hospital and Rehabilitation Center.

December 31, 1997: Michael LeMoyne Kennedy

In 1997, another of Robert and Ethel’s children died. Michael Kennedy, the sixth child of the 11 the two shared, died in a tragic skiing accident. Michael was dad to three kids: Michael Kennedy Jr., Kyle Francis Kennedy, and Rory Gifford Kennedy.

He was on the ski trip with several members of his family when he died. The family was reportedly playing a game of football while on their skis, and Michael was not wearing safety gear or a helmet.

July 16, 1999: John F. Kennedy Jr.

Two years later, the nation was again shocked when John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of JFK and Jackie, died alongside his wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette. The trio were traveling in a plane that John Jr. was piloting himself, and they were on their way to drop Lauren off at Martha’s Vineyard.

The Coast Guard began a search and rescue operation after being notified that the three had not shown up. John’s cousin said, “He’ll find a way to get out. He possesses the will to survive, enough will for all three of them.”

Sadly, the wreckage of the plane was found in the ocean instead, and the bodies of each of the passengers and the pilot were found on July 21, 1999.

September 16, 2011: Kara Kennedy

In 2011, Kara Kennedy, the only daughter of US Senator Ted Kennedy, died from a heart attack. This came nine years after she had a portion of her lung removed as part of treatment for lung cancer. Kara was reportedly working out at her health club at the time of the heart attack, and she was only 51 at the time of her death.

May 16, 2012: Mary Richardson Kennedy

Mary Richardson Kennedy was the ex-wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The two were married in 1994 and had four children together. She was also the stepmother of Robert’s two children from his marriage to Emily Black: Robert Francis Kennedy III and Kathleen Rose Kennedy.

Mary struggled after Robert filed for divorce, and in the days that followed she was arrested for driving under the influence. She had ongoing substance abuse concerns, and a judge had ruled that her husband should be granted full temporary custody of their children before her suicide.

August 1, 2019: Saoirse Roisin Kennedy Hill

Saoirse Roisin Kennedy Hill was the granddaughter of Robert F Kennedy Sr. She was 22 when she committed suicide at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Saoirse was open about her struggle with mental illness and even wrote about it in a 2016 essay for the school she attended.

She wrote that she felt a “deep sadness that felt like a heavy boulder on my chest” after “someone I knew and loved broke serious sexual boundaries with me.” She also added that “I did the worst thing a victim can do, and I pretended it hadn’t happened.”

April 2, 2020: Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and Gideon McKean

And in April 2020, Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and her 8-year-old son, Gideon, went missing while the family was self-isolating in a vacation home in the Chesapeake Bay. The bodies of the pair were later discovered, and it was revealed that they had attempted to retrieve a ball that had rolled into the bay and their canoe drifted out to choppy waters. The cause of death was officially determined to be an accidental drowning.