There is historical precedent for the Vatican agreeing to turn over a fugitive to the United States, although the Holy See maintains it cannot surrender ousted strongman Manuel A. Noriega from its embassy in Panama.
The Vatican adopted an entirely different position when asked to turn over John H. Surratt Jr., one of the suspected conspirators in the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Surratt, a young Confederate spy who had conspired with John Wilkes Booth to abduct Lincoln in 1864, fled after Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Surratt, a devout Catholic, changed his name to John Watson and joined Pope Pius IX’s Zouaves Regiment.
Surratt was located in 1866, whereupon Secretary of State William H. Seward notified Secretary of War E.M. Stanton.
“As we have no treaty of extradition with the papal government, it is proposed that a special agent be sent to Rome to demand the surrender of Surratt,” Seward wrote Stanton on May 28, 1866.
Accordingly, the U.S. envoy to the Vatican, Rufus King, sought a meeting with the Pope’s foreign minister, Cardinal Antonelli, to tell him about Surratt.
“His Eminence was greatly interested by it, and intimated that if the American government desired the surrender of the criminal, there would probably be no difficulty in any way,” King wrote Seward.
Several months later, having ascertained that Watson was indeed the fugitive Surratt, Seward instructed King to ask the cardinal “whether His Holiness (the Pope) would now be willing, in the absence of an extradition treaty, to deliver John H. Surratt. . . . “
So eager was the Vatican to help that it did not even wait for an official request and ordered Surratt arrested immediately.